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A teenager’s perspective: the pressing need for mental health days in schools

Mental health in children and teens is worsening, and there are not enough providers to support them. This is a cause for significant concern.

As a teenager who has experienced firsthand the challenges of maintaining positive mental health amidst a demanding school environment, I strongly advocate for the inclusion of mental health days as a means to support the well-being of students nationwide. May has been observed as the Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. But it’s imperative that conversations about teenage mental health and measures to address the crisis need to be had during the entire year.

With teenagers facing growing social and academic pressures, conversations surrounding mental health have never been more critical. Education plays such a pivotal role in shaping students’ futures that it is important to consider integrating mental health days into institutions across the country because they are beneficial to student well-being.

I live in Illinois. In January 2021, Illinois passed a state law allowing students to take up to 5 days off of school for mental or behavioral health reasons. Currently, 12 states in the United States have legally instituted mental health days in their school districts. Only 24% of the United States have established a legislature supporting the mental well-being of students in this way. More schools around the country must recognize the benefits of integrating the option of mental health days into students’ schedules.

Teenagers today face a unique set of challenges that can take a large toll on their mental state. The constant pressure to excel in school, with college acceptance rates dropping to record lows, combined with the encroaching need to socially fit in with heightened social media use. A New York University study on high school stress conditions highlighted the demanding nature of college admissions. During my time applying to colleges a few months ago, mental health days turned out to be a savior for me. The weight of doing well in difficult courses in the senior year curriculum combined with lengthy college applications took a large toll on both myself and my classmates. I was interviewed for my school newspaper, which highlighted the taxing nature of these applications.

A big challenge lies in social media as several TikTok trends revolving around college admissions have increasingly become popular among high schoolers. Students feel great pressure to gain social acceptance through the college or university they enroll in and attend after high school. A greater emphasis on prestige is placed through popular social networking apps, such as TikTok.

The comparison of myself to others rose immensely due to students showing off their acceptances on social media, completely exacerbating the already stressful process in the race for college admission. Combining this with dropping acceptance rates creates a huge negative impact on a student’s well-being. I felt as though I was in constant competition with not only myself or my peers but the rest of the world. I was also significantly drained, temperamental, and overall, not protecting my mental well-being during this time.

However, being able to take days solely for my mental health was what saved me. I was able to dedicate time to taking care of myself. When I took mental health days from school, I was able to reflect on my past achievements and significantly reduce stress by practicing self-care, which, in turn, increased my academic performance.

By incorporating mental health days into school environments, we send the powerful message that mental health is equally as important as physical health for students and further destigmatize the pertinent issue. The mental health days at schools foster important conversations about emotions and self-care.

The New York University study alarmingly identified substance abuse as a coping mechanism. The opioid crisis in schools continues to grow exponentially, with mental health challenges as a large contributor. Substance abuse has been an important topic for years and the rising rates of it in the school environment directly corresponds with the growing mental health crisis. According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents. US Preventive Services Task Force in its draft recommendation statement has recommended children ages 12 to 18 be screened for major depressive disorder. However, it’s evident that not enough is being done to prevent premature suicide and promoting mental well-being.

High school students are also scared and devastated at some of the suicides happening at colleges around the country. The death of a Stanford soccer star, as well as a former student of my high school, does not give hope to the high schoolers moving on to college. The growing college student suicide rate is also a byproduct of lacking mental health resources in high schools. It’s evident that students’ mental well-being is not protected enough in educational spaces. Mental Health Days need to be available not only in high schools but also in colleges. During the formative years in high school, teenagers can better adapt to academic and social pressures and utilizing mental health resources and avail themselves of the opportunity to take days off solely for mental health. In college, they are much better prepared as they have built the emotional intelligence and balance in high school.

Taking mental health days off of school significantly reduced my stress and anxiety, improved my overall mood, helped me practice self-care, and strengthened relationships with my friends and family. Many other students at my school were able to perform well in their classes because they were able to take breaks with mental health days. We need to make mental health days a permanent fixture at schools not only in Illinois or a few states but throughout the nation.

We need legislative action to make mental health days permanent across the nation.

Ruhi Saldanha is an undergraduate student.

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