Kids Need Access to Mental Health Days

Mental Health Days & Kids, a survey from Verywell Mind and Parents, shows that 86% of parents who’ve allowed their children to take mental health days agree they’re impactful. Here’s why they’re important and what to know.

By Allison Slater Tate

Recently, I asked a soon-to-be high school senior, Abby*, if she ever takes a day off from school for the sake of her mental health—just to hit the figurative pause button, sleep in, and clear her head.

“My mom offers mental health days to me and my brother, as long as we have good grades. But I haven’t taken any since middle school,” she says with a shrug.

Abby is a highly motivated student who has earned top grades in a renowned International Baccalaureate diploma program at her school while playing varsity soccer and holding a part time job. She also struggles with anxiety.

“As an IB student, the thought of missing school is really terrifying, and not just for the students, for adults, too,” she explains. “When we started ninth grade, the head of our program told us at orientation that we needed to know we would never be able to miss school, because the work would pile up quickly, and we wouldn’t be able to catch up. Missing one day of IB classes is like missing a whole week’s worth of work. I’m afraid to miss school.” So, what does Abby do instead to reset or recharge when she feels overwhelmed?

“Honestly? I just go until I have a little breakdown, and then I have to stop,” she says with a self-conscious laugh. “That’s my way of resetting, I guess.”

As a high school college counselor I have seen so many students like Abby feel they have no option but to grind out their school days, even if they are mentally or physically falling apart. They go until they break. It doesn’t have to be that way.

And most parents agree that mental health days—when students take the day off from school as they would a sick day, but to preserve their mental health—can help.

Mental Health Days & Kids, a survey of more than 1,000 American parents conducted by Verywell Mind and Parents, found that 75% of parents feel mental health days can be an effective tool in managing a child’s mental health—and 56% of those surveyed have let their child take a mental health day from school or other obligations, while an additional 32% say they would consider it.

Mental Health Days Offer an Emotional Reset

According to the Verywell Mind and Parents survey, 54% of parents are at least somewhat concerned about their kid’s mental health, and about 1 in 3 (or 35%) say their child has shown signs of struggle or emotional distress at least once a week.

Though parents acknowledge factors like the COVID-19 pandemic, social media, and navigating issues around friendships and identity contribute to their children’s struggles, 47% cite school as a significant cause of stress.

For most kids, mental health days can be a very positive tool. The survey shows that 86% of parents who give their children mental health days from school say they have made an impact on their children’s health—and 77% of them say that impact was positive.

Schools across the country are beginning to recognize mental health days as a useful strategy, but there’s still a long way to go. “Presently, over half the country does not have legislation for mental health days in schools, and even where it is mandated, 1 in 5 parents can’t afford to let their kids take one,” says Grace Bastidas, editor-in-chief of Parents. “They simply can’t miss work or pay for unexpected child care, so taking a day to reset and recharge becomes a question of privilege for many families.”

As of now, 12 states already consider mental health days excused absences from school, just as valid as a fever or a sore throat, and more have proposed bills to do the same. The specifics of the laws vary, with some requiring notes from mental health professionals or limiting the number of excused mental health days in a set amount of time.

Why Do Kids Need Mental Health Days?

Sarah Cain Spannagel, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with extensive experience working with children, adolescents, and families, says that as professionals and parents, offering mental health days are a necessary part of caring for the “whole child.”

“Just as we would provide or allow a day off if a child had a cold, caring for their mind and their emotional well-being is of equal importance,” says Dr. Spannagel. “Allowing for a day to care for that part of their body can have big benefits.”

By not only allowing our kids to take a day off from school, but actually encouraging them to do so, we can show them the power of taking care of themselves in an immediate way, Dr. Spannagel explains. The goal is to teach them to integrate these kinds of coping skills into a life-long practice for better mental health.

“The pandemic, canceled activities, and remote learning contributed to an increasing kids’ mental health crisis, prompting many states to permit kids to take mental health days from school so they could focus on managing their symptoms,” says Amy Morin, LCSW, editor-in-chief, Verywell Mind.

Jennifer Ross’s only son, now 18, will soon head to college, where he will play soccer. Ross says that having a family member her son’s age go through mental health struggles hit close to home and showed them how important it was to allow him flexibility when he needs to decompress.

“My son would tell me when he was in a good place in his classes and wanted to take a day off to go to the beach,” says Ross. “Sports, college classes in high school, working—it all takes a toll, so I wanted him to know that it was OK to breathe a little if he needed to. It was usually once a quarter, but not on a set schedule.”

What Should Families Do on Mental Health Days?

Ironically, most students in my school—and even in my own home—use mental health days from school to…catch up on school work. Others sleep in, play video games, or go to a theme park, a beach, to lunch or the movies. In the Verywell Mind and Parents survey, of the parents who reported that their children use mental health days, 60% say their kids stay at home on those days.

The key, Dr. Spannagel says, is to follow the student’s lead. Though she usually recommends avoiding devices if possible—”An all-day X-Box day probably tanks mood more than brings it back,” she says—she suggests letting kids do whatever will lead to feeling relief from the pressures of the normal routine.

“Talk it through with them and do the detective work, first to find out what the main issue is, and then to find a solution,” says Dr. Spannagel. “Ask, ‘What exactly feels too big right now or too overwhelming? What can we do to help you recharge?'”

Parents can decide what a reasonable amount of mental health days are per quarter or semester, but they don’t necessarily have to divulge that number to their children, says Dr. Spannagel. “It is critical to allow your kids to know you are open to the idea of a mental health day,” she explains, and “that you want your kids taking care of their whole selves, head to toe, so that they know that if anything in their body feels like it’s not right, you want them to listen to that.”

In the Verywell Mind and Parents survey, among parents who give their children mental health days, their children had taken an average of five days off in the past year.

Other Ways to Reenergize

For some kids, like Abby, taking a day off from school might cause more anxiety or more trouble than it will help. In that case, parents might need to get creative.

For instance, a mental health day doesn’t have to last a whole day to be effective. It could be as simple as sleeping in or leaving school early, alleviating the amount of make-up work the student will have when they return. Even a small respite might make a big difference.

Beyond that, Dr. Spannagel says, go back to the basics: make sure they are eating, sleeping, and hydrating.

One parent who says her teenagers are too anxious to take a day off from school says, “If I see them struggling, I’ll get them a special study snack or make their favorite dinner, step up the TLC.”

When There’s a Bigger Issue

While Dr. Spannagel encourages parents to consider mental health days an important part of parenting school-age kids, she did have a warning: watch for patterns, and don’t let kids use mental health days to avoid school.

What’s the difference? A mental health day is meant to be a break from routine, not an excuse to be late on an assignment. If a student is staying home because they are avoiding a test or a due date or they are unprepared, that can turn into a pattern of school refusal that could snowball fast and actually increase mental health issues for kids.

“I would suggest taking only one or two days off at a time, just to make sure kids don’t fall into that trap,” says Dr. Spannagel.

Many teachers would support that strategy. Several teachers who are also parents told me they agree mental health days are a good thing––not just for their kids, but for themselves as well.

“I totally encourage mental health days,” says elementary school teacher Meghan Berzovich, who has one son in college and a daughter in high school. “It may just mean taking off the last two periods of the school day, but we feel that our kids know when they need a break,” she says. “As a teacher, I feel like mental health days are a necessity. There’s too much going on in their world.”

*Name has been changed.