Q: Oregon schools are now allowing kids to take five mental health days each school year. It was pushed by a group of high school students who want to lower Oregon’s very high teen suicide rate and incidences of mental illness. Should other states or districts follow suit?
“Students request less school” is hardly a headline that would have garnered attention in previous generations, but in today’s culture where the “wisdom” of youth is revered with almost religious fervor, apparently it demands a serious looking into.
My first reaction (well, my second reaction. My first reaction, like most of you, was “oh, more snowflake coddling”) is that a mental health day will keep exactly zero students from acquiring a mental illness. Students do not develop depression or contemplate suicide simply because they went to school on Tuesday.
They may, however, develop such setbacks due to what occurs at school. One of the issues brought forward by the Oregon student-lobbyists is bullying; which psychologists tell us can indeed lead to mental issues if not dealt with.
The key there is “not dealt with.” It is generally a good idea to tackle serious issues head on so they don’t haunt us over time. But taking a day of school to escape bullying is what I would call “avoidance.” It is the opposite of dealing with the problem. What happens when the student returns? Will the bully have forgotten his need to torment?
My experience is that students who internalize and avoid in this way have a much harder time coping with bullying than students who report it to their parents and school officials. Most schools are dealing with bullying much better now than they did in the past.
So what students need from parents and schools is encouragement to deal with the issue rather than the largesse to let it fester and cause the mental anguish the bullying wants to inflict. Giving a student a few days off to cope with ongoing bullying might be like giving someone with cancer a few days to contemplate what the disease could do to him if he doesn’t treat it. The more compassionate response, to me, at least, is to treat it now and contemplate later, because every day you wait, the problem grows worse.
One problem with children writing laws is that they don’t always critically evaluate the chain of consequences that may arise as a result of their choices. In fairness, adults don’t either, but at least we have the ability and maturity to do so if we wish to. So one thing the kids probably have not considered is social media’s impact on the alarming increase in mental problems that they are trying to improve.
According to the American Psychological Association, social media is a likely cause of the breathtaking rise in teen mental health problems, including mood disorders and suicidal-related outcomes. So here’s where we have to do some synthesizing. What do we think the kids who are taking a day off from school will be doing? If recent studies are correct, they will be spending even more time on social media than they do already, which some studies tell us may be as much as 9 hours a day.
In other words, it is very likely that taking so-called “mental health days” will in fact lead to even more problems with teen mental health. You don’t prevent rabies by increasing your exposure to rabid animals.
But let’s be honest. Nobody genuinely believes that offering a few hours out of school is going to somehow ward off the rise in grave mental health issues. In point of fact, all the legislation will do is give perfectly normal but lazy kids more opportunity to lay around playing video games, watching YouTube, and catching up on Snapchat. If you have a job, you’ve probably taken a “mental health” day yourself. Did you do so to go to psychiatric counseling? Maybe. But if you’re like the people I know, you probably just went shopping or stayed home to veg.
It’s nice to have a day off, and adults with the ability to indulge have every right to take advantage of it. But I’m not sure it’s helpful to start teaching first graders to rely on it as a means of coping with stress. A better way is to teach them to prioritize, make schedules, carve out personal time, grapple with serious issues instead of letting them fester, and reach out for human help if they find themselves struggling.
Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be.