Mental health days: we all need them. Now.

Illustration: Tony H.

You might have heard about it: Oregon, one of the states with the highest suicide rates in the whole United States, passed a bill last July so that students can take mental health [sick] days.

Every university, private company and public institution should allow its students and employees to take such sick days, because mental ill-health is just like physical ill-health: it comes as a package with human beings. Ignoring the fact that people have mental illnesses (1 in 5 people in the US and worldwide in any given year, now that's not exactly rare) is not going to make them magically disappear -- just like it's not going to make people magically be up for work or studying, and productive. That's of course if you're not willing to consider that enjoying good health is a basic human right.


 Other states have included mental ill-health in the list of reasons accepted for absence. Think it's an issue being blown out of proportions by mass media? Or that children don't kill themselves? Think again: the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported in 2017 that suicide was the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34 years old in the United States.


So what good does a mental health day do? Well, a lot.


Before we go on, allow me to answer a pretty common and extremely infuriating remark. A lot of parents, bosses and otherwise judgy individuals keep arguing that "people will use those days as an excuse to just not show up!". Let's be very clear: even if that were MASSIVELY the case, which it is not but let's still go with that, DOES IT BALANCE OUT WITH PREVENTING PEOPLE FROM KILLING THEMSELVES? Spoiler alert: NOPE.

Also, do some people use their regular sick days to sometimes just spend the day lazily in bed watching bad television? Yes. Does that mean we should cancel sick days as a whole? I sure hope you know the right answer to this one.

Now that this is out the conversation, how exactly do mental health days help prevent suicide, prevent the worsening of existing mental illnesses and foster a good mental health for all?


People get time to manage a crisis

When you're having a panic attack, can't stop crying or face your third night of insomnia, just knowing that you don't have to make it to school, university or the office in order to avoid getting fired or being forced to drop out is a good way to at least lessen the intensity of your ill-feeling -- and the length of the crisis.


A full day can also enable you to:

  • Schedule an appointment with your doctor
  • Cry your heart out (and maybe then feel a little better equipped to study for that test next week)
  • Get some much-needed sleep
  • Ride out that episode of acute psychosis (commonly referred to as hallucinations), which can prove extremely tiring and emotionally draining
  • And a million other things that can help you get your mental health issue under control
  • It can also serve as a buffer, when you're suffering bullying for example. In that case, just a day off once in a while can help you maintain the energy to look for another job, talk about it to a counselor or start legal action


Mental health gets normalized

You don't have to be dealing with a diagnosed mental illness, either. A mental health day conveys the idea that mental health is something everyone has, just like everyone has a physical health (I'm leaning towards not differentiating the two but as it is far from common sense that "mental health" is included in "health", we still need to use that adjective).

Hence the need to stop and take care of it, just like when you feel a cold coming on and you stay home to nurse your body back to health before that cold develops into a full-blown pneumonia.


Mental health days are a very good tool to start hacking away at the shame that prevents so many people from seeing a therapist.


People get the chance to talk about and tackle their mental health issues = PREVENTION

This one is pretty obvious, but as mental health sick days should be too, I'm still going to explain.

Taking a sick day means either:

  • Not going to school/university/work as part of a given number of sick days per week or month and not having to answer about it to anyone. People will likely still ask where you've been and whether you're feeling okay.


  • Or not going to school/university/work and having to formally justify your absence through a certificate delivered by a doctor or a note from your parent. In that particular case, explaining (with the support of that doctor or parent) that you needed a mental health day can alert your loved ones, superiors, teachers, colleagues or friends that something is not alright and you need help.


Either way it will help open the conversation on the topic of mental (ill-)health and not only will it normalize it, it will also enable you to talk to your managers, teachers or counselors about changing some things so that you can thrive at work or studying. Solutions do exist -- they depend of course on the company you work at and the school you're enrolled in, and not all managers or teachers will be understanding or empathetic, but as a human being you have rights. Talk to HR, your academic advisor or a (local if possible) NGO dedicated to mental health.


When the definition of "sick day" includes "mental health not okay", you're more likely to tell your loved ones, boss, teachers, colleagues and fellow students that you're not doing too good these days due to a diagnosed mental illness, a difficult event such as the death of a loved one or consistent bullying for being LGBTQ, or this constant feeling of emptiness that you can't explain.

And believe me, when people around you know about your mental health issues, it is so much less psychologically draining for you (and them): you don't have to pretend, you don't have to explain at length everytime because they know the basics (you deal with a mental illness) and together you can also establish little things that would be helpful to you on a daily basis or for your next crisis.


It will provide useful statistics

Knowing when a person is taking a sick day for a mental-health-related issue is difficult: people aren't straightforward about it. Which totally makes sense, since outside of Oregon, Utah and Minnesota they need a physical health problem to justify their absence (also, as I mentioned before, shame).

So allowing people to mention that they're in need of a mental health day will help collect data on how many are suffering mental health-wise, at which degree (how many of those days a person takes is a good indicator of ill they are over the course of several months) and whether there might be a serious problem at some companies or universities that would require immediate and major change.

Tackling issues means knowing what we're dealing with. And some hard facts and data are of great help to convince the coldest-hearted of administration boards to actually do something.


I could add that no one's productive or actually learning when they're not okay. But I already mentioned at the beginning of this article, and even though it is an objectively efficient argument, I am uncomfortable with the idea it also conveys: that human beings should be seen first and foremost in terms of their productivity and work value.

We all deserve to feel good, which doesn't mean that natural grief, frustration or negative feelings should be fully eliminated -- it means that when those feelings become the norm or make up for the majority of a person's emotions, then it is not in the realm of acceptable anymore.


What you can do to help mental health days become "a thing"

  • Talk to your managers, colleagues, parents, friends when you're not okay.


  • Tell them, when you're taking a sick day, that it is mental-health-related (of course, be careful with that if you're rather certain your superior will hold it against you).


  • Don't hesitate to go to your doctor, and that includes general practictioners, when you need one of those days.


  • See a therapist if that happens often (I'll let you be the judge of that, but persistent negative feelings over a period of two weeks or more is a good indicator used by doctors)


  • Tell your superiors, teachers, colleagues, deputies about the existence of mental health days in Oregon, Utah and Minnesota, and start advocating to have them put in place. For universities and schools, a student association might exist that could push for such change, so join them or talk to them about advocating for mental health days. It is, after all, back-to-school/work time: an excellent opportunity to start advocating for the coming year.



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Going further

I feel better, Mom, a letter you could write
Seven therapist tips for feeling better -- with a practical twist