Last updated on November 19, 2021
Mental health struggles among teenagers in the U.S. have been a long standing issue that people are trying to address. The pandemic both brought to light and intensified many issues of mental health struggles for teenagers, but most of the root causes have existed for years. Pressures of school, social media, athletics, and social life often leave teenagers feeling like they can’t catch a break. This stress doesn’t just take a mental toll but has serious effects on young people’s physical health as well. When you experience stress it’s your body kicking into high alert mode because it feels threatened. Your nervous system responds to that threat by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. Short term stress can cause headaches, muscle pain, fatigue, an upset stomach, and sleep problems. Long term stress is more constant than short term stress, and because of that your body operates at a heightened state of stress all the time. Your body never sends the signal to your nervous system to return to regular operation, and that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. One thing that can help your body calm down is taking a break from constant stress that you experience in everyday life.
At Northwest, teachers try to be conscious of the workload students are receiving so they don’t get overwhelmed. There are resources such as LSPs for students with learning differences and the school counselors or advisors are available as well, but even with all of this considered, sometimes juggling all the responsibilities of being a teenager can feel like too much. When things feel like they’re piling up the one of the things you can do is step back and take a break. I asked Hillary French, the Director of Learning Resources at Northwest what her opinions are about mental health days and she agreed that they can be very necessary and important. When you take a mental health day it’s a way to give yourself some space and disengage from the constant grind of your daily life. I asked students in an anonymous survey how they use mental health days, and many said they use the day to catch up on work or study. Some others said they like to take the day to get outside and go for a walk, read a book they’ve been wanting to start but haven’t had time for, practice mindfulness and recenter themselves, or just relax and not do anything for the day. There is no right way to take a mental health day and they can be incredibly beneficial when used for the right reasons. Hillary noted that “Taking a mental health day because you do not want to take a test, or because you do not have an assignment done that is due, is not allowing you to unplug and rest. It will likely create additional stress as those things will still be waiting for you when you return.” She then added, “as long as the reasoning behind the intention of the day is to allow you a break, and you are aware that there will be things to catch up on that you missed when you return, then yes, I feel they can be helpful and beneficial.” Mental health days can help normalize struggles that many people face. Instead of disguising anxiety and stress as ‘being sick’ we can be open and have conversations about those feelings. There should be no shame in setting boundaries because you feel overwhelmed. This communication and being open about mental health struggles is necessary for both students’ own wellbeing and so faculty are able to give all the support they can.
Being able to take a day off can often help students be more productive when they return to school because their stress levels have gone down. Their engagement in class and with extracurriculars is much better. Students have told me through an anonymous google survey that mental health days are necessary for them to function the best they can throughout their day. Needing to take a day off for mental health reasons is just as valid a reason as being sick or having a family emergency to miss school. With mental health becoming a more prominent and talked about issue for teens, we have to accept that moving forward the conventional ideas about how to take care of yourself and your mental health are changing. In addition to taking a break, there are other ways to manage stress such as meditation, exercise, positive affirmations, and engaging in conversations about mental health. Using these strategies in combination with the option of being able to take a day off is the best way to lower stress among students at Northwest.