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

See Part I of this series here.


Year 10 Student, Martin’s* parents were shocked to discover that their son had missed almost half of his classes in the current term. Along with these missed days, Martin had not submitted any major assessments.

Year 11 Student, Mary*, had missed no school days in the current year. However, Mary had been highly anxious about falling behind. Usually an enthusiastic learner, Mary had begun to loathe school.


Over the last few years there has been a trend to legislate mental health days for students. Over the same period of time, the number of absent days for students has skyrocketed.

School Refusal

The respected establishment newspaper, the Guardian Australia, has been running a series of articles on school refusal. School refusal is a problem common to psychologists who have experience working with teenagers (as I do). The school refusal phenomenon usually consists of an ongoing pattern of missing school due to feelings of aversion to school.

Since Covid restrictions have ended there has been a marked increase in school absence. The stories of families affected by school refusal make for heart-breaking reading. Once the pattern of non-attendance starts, strong-arming the kids back through threats and consequences seems to be ineffective if not counterproductive.

Who are these children that are refusing school?

I have worked with quite a number of school-refusing clients. It’s hard to pin down a stereotype of the average school refusal student. Some of these students are struggling academically, some achieve good grades with minimal effort. Some are being bullied at school, others are well liked by their peers.

In my experience the one common factor between all of these students is the manner in which they cope with stress and distress. The majority of them primarily use avoidant coping methods.

Martin (above) is one of these students. Martin was described by his parents as an “ostrich”: Always sticking his head in the sand. Martin was day-dreamy, was a heavy internet user, and was a procrastinator par excellence. He was usually highly conflict avoidant, which is why his parents were so shocked when he became violently enraged at attempts to force him to attend school.

Martin coped with difficulties by avoidance.

Avoidance is actually not a bad strategy for coping with short-term problems. Many problems (maybe most) just need time to pass to make things better. Problems like a friend not contacting you, or, running out of money a day before pay day, just need time to pass to solve them. Overly thinking about some problems induces needless suffering and taking action to solve some problems often makes things much worse.

But some problems only get bigger with the passing of time. School is one of these types of problems.

Martin started by missing two days of school when he had an oral presentation. Upon his return, the class had moved on, and he got away without presenting. During the first lockdown he started to fall behind (home internet was just too tempting) and he never recovered. The more school he missed, the more he had to catch up. The more he had to catch up, the higher his anxiety. The higher his anxiety, the harder to get to school.

It is important that children and teenagers like Martin, in the first place, do not form the habit of avoiding school to manage their stress or anxiety of attendance. Once the school refusal habit has started it is incredibly difficult to stop.

The Covid-19 lockdowns massively amplified the school non-attendance problem (I called it! see April 2020). The School Can’t Facebook group for parents of school refusing children had roughly 900 members pre-pandemic, the Guardian reports it now has 6,595. Unfortunately, many of these lockdown kids now face an uphill battle to overcome school and life avoidance.

How can you prevent school refusal?

I usually think of the Rule of Two. For non-serious illness no more than two consecutive days off. And, if there have been two series of consecutive days off in a term, time to contact the school about a potential emerging problem.

If you know your kid and know that they are avoidant by temperament, stay in contact with their teachers about mystery illnesses (illnesses that lack externally obvious symptoms), it’s important to know whether there is a class presentation, or other feared assignment due which might be causing the illness.

School refusal is a strong phobic response and is often a manifestation of social anxiety. Getting medical and psychological treatment for these conditions is important.

So, given mental health days might lead to school avoidance, should we scrap the idea?

Well, we haven’t considered Mary yet…


To be continued…


* Name and key details changed to protect anonymity

Speak Your Mind


Suite C5
102-106 Boyce Rd
Maroubra Junction, NSW 2035
(02) 8958 2585

Have Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.