Should we let our kids take mental health days off school?

It is a difficult to think your child might be suffering from mental health issues- especially to the point where school may not be the best place for them on a given day. As we move towards a world that views mental health in the same way as physical health- a move that is way over due- the question arises: Should we let our kids take the occasional 'mental health day' off school?

This topic has come up in several conversations over the last few weeks. I've discussed it with other parents, with healthcare professionals, and most interestingly, a group of teenage girls. Most people agree that there is some benefit in having a day off school to revitalise and deal with the issues. Others question whether a day off could do more damage than good. 

There is no clear cut answer. In 2017 Dr Amy Morin, Psychotherapist, described the complexity of a 'mental health day' in Forbes Magazine. Advising a parent to allow their child to stay home, depends entirely on the child and the nature of their mental health. A day off could be the best thing in the world for a child, but could equally make things much much worse. 

At the same time, bridging the gap between school and home life can only benefit parents when dealing with a child who is suffering. Many schools will not have the resources to deal with mental health issues, and so an open discussion between parents and teachers/school guidance councillors about whether a child would benefit from a day off, could be very useful. It would also normalise issues of mental health and allow kids and teachers to talk openly about the topic, removing stigma. 

If you and your child's doctor do decide that taking days off will be of benefit, Amy Morin suggests that these days must be filled with the right kind of activities in order for them to work. Watching movies or sleeping all day is not a healthy solution, nor is rewarding your child with lunches out or days at the park. Spend the day proactively by talking through the problem and finding a long term solution- a single day of fun will not solve mental health issues. Use the day to explore options with a mental health care professional. A day of self care with healthy eating an exercise as well as an early night will also be of benefit. 

One of the arguments against allowing kids to take the day off for mental health reasons, is that a child could easily 'fake it' to spend the day playing video games and watching netflix. This argument is weak in a serious discussion on mental health, simply because kids can and do 'fake it' when it comes to physical injury or headaches- we all know the hair-dryer on the fore-head trick to fake a temperature. If a parent can be trusted to guage whether their kid is pulling a fast one in this case, then it is up to parent to decide whether a day off is the best option for their own child in cases of poor mental health, too. 

Another, more valid argument is the idea of avoidance. School should be and often is the best place for our kids. Days off could lead to the child missing out and subsequently doing worse in exams and assignments, which might lead to a decrease in confidence and eventually, a decrease in mental health. With that in mind, it seems seeking professional help is the best option. A parent should decide with a mental health care professional what is in the best interests of the child at the time.  

The short answer seems to be yes, days off school for mental heath reasons must be permitted or even made official to reduce stigma and properly face this issue that seems to be growing. However it is more complex than simply allowing your 15 yo to lie in bed on any day he or she feels they cannot face school. For starters, if your kid is expressing signs of poor mental health, seeking professional help is imperative and informing the school is also a good idea. Also the 'mental health day' should be used as a productive time to practice mindfulness or somehow get to grips with what's going on. It should not be used as a way to avoid problems at school or in their personal lives. 

Good luck mums and dads and mind your own mental health, too!

Anna Murray is an Irish student mum to one little girl.

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