Mental Health Days, School Refusal, and Coping with Stress: Part I

Martin’s* parents were called by his Year Ten Coordinator to discuss his ongoing absences from class and his assessment non-admittance. Martin’s parents were shocked to discover that the problem was even bigger than they’d thought.   

Mary*, Year 11 student has been attending weekly psychology sessions in the lead up to starting the HSC. Her grades were outstanding as was her attendance. She felt stressed at school, but worried that she’d fall behind if she missed too much school. She presented to the local emergency department with suicidal ideation. 

Mental Health Days

The respected establishment newspaper, the Washington Post, recently reported on a growing trend of legislating mental health days for adolescents. Currently 12 states allow children and/or adolescents a certain number of days off per year for a “recharge”. These days exist outside of the usual structure for physical health.

A US politician who sponsored these changes say that the mental health day laws destigmatise mental health and equalise mental and physical health. Barb Solish, the president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness says “Practically speaking, if you have a fever, you’re not paying attention in class, right? You’re not learning the lesson. If you’re feeling overwhelming anxiety, you’re not learning either.”

Is it time for Australia to legislate mental health days for adolescents?

I often instruct clients to reduce expectations on themselves in times of crisis. When juggling a lot of balls, it’s important to know which ones you can drop. Sometimes this means taking time off work or study to engage in self-care. The ability to take a pause from a stressful environment is an important tool in the psychological toolkit.

Disengaging briefly can be protective for a person’s mental health. Some people, such as Mary, are over-engaged in the learning process. Too much is wrapped up in academic success and failure, it can start to feel like life and death. Mary, and kids like her, are overcompensators, they cope with their stress and anxiety by trying to get on top of and control their problems.

The Marys of the world could use a mental health day. And hopefully they’ll use it if they’re offered (more on this later). But the world doesn’t just contain Marys, it also contains Martins. and Martin does not overcompensate to cope with stress.

Martin avoids.


Next: School Refusal


* Name and key details changed to protect anonymity

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