When Will Students Catch a Break?
February 10, 2022
For decades, students have been asking for longer breaks from school to alleviate the pressure it puts on them as individuals, but it is only now, after a grueling pandemic, that administrators and government officials are beginning to listen. In the first full year of the pandemic, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report stating that the number of mental health related doctor’s visits had increased by 31% in minors aged twelve to seventeen.
Pre-existing mental illnesses reached an all time high for many adolescents during the pandemic and some developed new ones. However, students were already battling high stress levels and depression before the Covid-19 pandemic. One’s primary focus in life as a minor is school. As one gets older, academics begin to consume their entire life and the line between school and free time has blurred due to homework loads. The media, teachers, and administrators add pressure to maintain high grades, but do not always supply the help needed to achieve those expectations.
As of the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, only eight states have passed legislation that grants students the ability to take excused mental health days off from school. Those states are Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Virginia.
Excused mental health days are intended to allow students time to de-stress and give their minds a much needed break from the pressure so that, when they return to school, they can focus and engage properly in their classes. Both the government officials and administrators in support of mental health days agree that they may help destigmatize mental health care for adolescents and encourage them to seek professional help. If students are to be marked absent and reprimanded for taking time off from school to care for themselves, then it sends the implicit message that they are doing something wrong. They also agree that these days should not be used as an excuse to evade tests, presentations, or other academic challenges at school. The hope is that, in situations where a student avoids school for non-mental health related reasons, they will turn to a trusted adult for help, but that will require more work on both the parents’ and school systems’ behalf. However, offering these unpunished and optional breaks from school is a good start of giving children and young adults the power to care for themselves and learn healthy life skills.
Maryland students do not yet have this option. For two consecutive years, Prince George’s County Delegate Alonzo Washington has pitched a bill to allow excused mental health days in Maryland schools. Under this bill, students who are granted a mental health day are required to meet with a school counselor upon returning to school.
So far, his efforts have not been successful, but, in order to gauge where my peers stood on this issue, I sent a survey out to Carver Center Students at random. All responses were submitted anonymously. Of course, I do not have the medical background to interpret these responses beyond what each student responded. Information about diagnoses was not collected, nor did I follow up with any of the participants about their choices. All students were made aware of the terms and purpose of this survey prior to completing it. Twenty-five students participated.
I first asked the participants if they faced any mental health obstacles during the remote learning school year, 2020-2021. The majority selected one or more from the provided list. Some wrote in their own responses:
When asked whether or not these obstacles arose before, during, or continued throughout the pandemic, participants responded:
Lastly, I asked whether or not they felt that excused mental health days could be beneficial to Carver Center students. The overwhelming majority said “Yes”.
The general consensus was, “Yes”, mental health days could be a positive installment for students. When asked to support their answer, however, there were a variety of explanations and concerns expressed in their replies.
Dragging ourselves into the school building when we feel our minds are [exhausted] means that we are physically there, but our minds aren’t and that isn’t beneficial for anyone.
Other students felt that excused mental health days would relieve the guilt they felt for taking personal days off from school since it would no longer be marked as an absent day on their report cards. Some felt mental health days might help Carver Center students, in particular, balance the academic and artistic expectations placed on them.
While the majority response was positive, there were some who were not so sure.
Some were concerned with how the system would be regulated:
How many days would we give kids and why? What’s stopping any child from saying they need a day off every day?
The bill proposed by Delegate Washington here in Maryland would require these days to be approved before giving students a break. However, that in itself may provide more obstacles for both faculty and students. What constitutes a reasonable mental health day? Is there a central set of requirements that each school follows or is it school by school? This leaves room for the legislation to be abused by the administrators in control as well.
One student suggested the return of asynchronous Wednesdays. During the remote learning school year, each Wednesday was reserved for independent work and virtual club meetings. It also gave students a day to de-stress and manage their time in a way that worked best for them to complete their assignments. If this system were to return, it is likely to be easier to regulate than individual mental health days because everyone would be out of school on the same day. They also have the potential to decrease the stress of missing work as asynchronous Wednesdays are not necessarily work free days, but instruction free days.
If we learned one thing throughout the pandemic, it is that at home learning and regular breaks from the stressful environments we occupy not only give individuals more flexibility in their lives, but the opportunity to work at the pace that is best for them. While there are cons to this system as well, it is clear that every human being needs a break at some point and, for teenagers, for whom a major source of this stress comes from the school system. In the future, I hope that we come to a conclusion about how to give both students and teachers their-must needed breaks. For now, however, students will continue to have these needs pushed to the side as they are given the morbid yet disastrous truth that these conditions are preparing them for the “real world”.