Is it time schools offered official mental health days? Kids and teens are not all OK

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

I'm a big believer in mental health days. I don't take them often but sometimes when things build up, the best thing to do is take a break and create some mental space. It genuinely helps. 

I encourage my three children to take a mental health day if they need one too. At first, I worried that they might take advantage of the lack of physical evidence required to take the day off – my mother required either actual vomit or a broken bone to give us the day off when I was growing up – but I've been pleasantly surprised.

Of my three children, I think I've seen a total of three mental health days taken this year so far: two from one, one from another, and zero from the third.

Nobody has fallen behind or missed anything important, but they have felt better from having taken the time out, and the opportunity to talk to me about what's going on for them.

The US state of Illinois recently passed a law stating that schools have to offer up to five mental health days a year for each child, which would be a wonderful thing to see replicated in Australia.

If our government wants to talk up initiatives like RUOK Day and claim they're taking mental health seriously, surely it's about time to demonstrate to our children that it's a genuine issue that should be taken as seriously as physical health.

Mental health days at school is an idea that has a lot of support in the mental health professional community.

Psychotherapist Amber Rules from Rough Patch Counselling says time out from their usual responsibilities is just as important for children as it is for adults. 

"They need time to process social information and interpersonal experiences with other kids, time alone with their thoughts and imagination, downtime for their brains to relax and sometimes might need time to process sadness, frustration or grief away from school," she says. 

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"Kids often don't have the skill or understanding to ask for a mental health day, in which case, they might say they feel sick or come up with a reason why they don't want to go to school. Giving kids the option to ask for a mental health day means they can then process why they need it with their parent, and it can help them learn to set healthy boundaries about their emotional capacity, as well as learn how to be compassionate with themselves when they are experiencing mental distress."

Rule says validating mental health days might help children by normalising and destigmatising talking about, and asking for help with, mental health. 

"It can also teach them to prioritise their mental health as they get older, which can help them to learn that needing help with mental health issues isn't 'weak'," she says.

And while we're waiting for schools to offer mental health days, Rule says the role of parents can be key in helping our children handle their mental health in a healthy way.

"Parents should try their best to openly and comfortably talk about mental health without shaming or disbelieving their kids," she says. 

"Having an open, curious discussion about why a child is requesting a mental health day is important; try using open questions that are age appropriate, such as 'What is important about a mental health day today?' 'Is there anything you'd like to talk about?' 'Can I support you with any ideas on how to manage the feelings you're having?'

"In some cases, parents might also want to suggest a child see a counsellor for extra ideas and support for their mental health."

If you or someone you know is struggling, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger call 000.