It was 1974. I was in third grade and my big sister, a high school junior, had been allowed to stay home from school. To my knowledge she wasn’t sick or hurt, nor did she even have a bad case of cramps. “Why does she get to stay home?” I asked my mother. Because “sometimes you just need a day,” was her reply.
I was mystified and a bit irritated at this. My sister had been short-tempered and moody with everyone lately as she dealt with a demanding academic course load and challenging extracurriculars. Why did she get to stay home while I had to go to school? What’s more, why was my mother indulging her? It all seemed terribly unfair.
Why Students Need Mental Health Days
Of course, back then, no one was talking about things like anxiety, or using terms like “mental health day.” But my mother knew what she was doing — she was showing us that it was ok to listen to your emotional and mental needs in the same way it was ok to listen to your physical needs.
Just as she would take our temperature if we had the flu, she was reading our emotional temperature and helping us take care of ourselves, and for my sister that meant “taking a day.” Decades later, as I started down my own parenting road, I tried to incorporate her mantra of “sometimes you just need a day” into my “mom toolbox” along with other gems from my mother such as “when you think they’re well enough to go back to school, keep them home one more day,” “you can’t spoil a child with love,” and “things are just things.”
Little did I know that my daughter had been absorbing this lesson all along and was ready to put it into practice.
My daughter has wrestled with anxiety for much of her life, and has diligently worked at honing a set of tools to help her meet anxiety head on and conquer it – or at the very least quiet it. But recently, with a perfect storm of academics, work, and other pressures bearing down on her, she was advised to take a mental health day from classes and commitments.
She called to tell me — not to ask my permission or my opinion — but to let me know that she “just needed a day” and was going to take it. This was a tool she could use to manage the stress, worry and perfectionism that dogged her, and she was going to take advantage of it to press her ‘reset button.’
My College Daughter’s Mental Health Day
I was a bit concerned about how my very “Type-A” student would handle missing a couple of classes during her mental health day — would it amplify the anxiety it was supposed to quel? As it turns out, she had the full support of her professors which eased any guilt she might have felt and, while she did have a few moments of “should I just go anyway,” she stuck to her plan and took a day to rest, recharge and reboot herself. Her friends delivered assignments for her, professors told her to ‘put worry aside’ and just ‘take her day,’ all of which made it easier for her to feel better.
I admit I was also a bit worried that she would want to stay in her ‘day off’ rather than return to the pressures of her course load, rehearsals and work commitments, but by the time she checked in at the end of the weekend she was in a much better place. After her mental health day and some sorely needed sleep, she’d tackled a pile of work, sorted out an assignment that was causing her worry, and even found time for an outing with friends. She sounded stronger, better and ready to push on with the semester. Her mental health day had been exactly what she had needed to get back on track.
Her experience was an interesting exercise for me as well. Even after twenty years of parenting this anxious child-now-woman, I still wrestle with how to best be there for her at moments like these. If she had called and said she was sick with a fever or flu I wouldn’t have hesitated to say “of course you should stay in bed and not go to class,” and would have assumed that her professors would have excused her absence. Why was I so worried that taking mental health day wouldn’t be understood- or worse, would be scorned?
I soon realized what a gift it was for her to take this day with the full support of her professors, bosses and friends, that it legitimized her mental health needs in a way that was formerly only reserved for physical needs. And, by not questioning her situation but rather fully endorsing her decision, I was doing the same thing.
And I heard my mother’s voice in my head “sometimes you just need a day.” As usual, mom was right.
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