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

See Part I and Part II of this series for a background to this article.


Year 10 Student, Martin* attended treatment for a school refusal problem. He was anxious about school and coped by avoiding all reminders of school.

Year 11 Student, Mary*, attended treatment for sleep loss, strong emotions, and panic symptoms. She was anxious about school and coped by becoming hyper-focused on her study.


Coping with Stress

Forty percent of 16–24-year-olds in Australia reported having a mental health condition last year.

Even before Covid, there has been a trend of increasing mental health disorders in teenagers in Western countries. The need for mental health support seems inexhaustible.  How do we respond to this problem? How do school respond to this problem when it interferes with wellbeing and learning?

Policies, like legislated mental health days, are blunt tools for addressing complex problems. Not all students cope the same way. A helpful approach for one can be a downright hinderance to another. People are different and they cope with stress differently.

Schema Therapy proposes that there are three main families of unhelpful coping strategies: Avoidance, Overcompensation and Surrender.

Mental health days may entrench an avoidant pattern for students prone to avoidance (like Martin). How might they affect overcompensating students?

Mary: Overcompensator

Mary was repeatedly told by her parents, her friends and her psychologist to take a break. She acknowledged that she was over-involved in schoolwork. But taking a day off school just seemed illogical. For Mary, staying away from school would put her behind on her work. Even the thought of falling behind would push her anxiety and guilt to extreme levels.

Kids who overcompensate usually don’t appreciate a break from school. Asking them to step away from schoolwork is like telling them someone with a broken leg to stop walking with a crutch. Schoolwork is a coping method as it alleviates the stress of the fear of failure. Tackling the problem makes stress lower not higher (in the short-term at least).

Having worked with many “Marys” I can attest that it will be difficult to get them to utilise a mental health day. Better to help Mary’s to feel good about themselves, beyond their grades and validation from others. Validating that they are working hard and that it is difficult also helps.

So, if mental health days mightn’t work for Mary or Martin, who might they help?

Neither Mary, nor Martin: Surrender Coping

Some kids neither overcompensate nor avoid, they surrender.

Surrender coping means hopelessly tolerating a bad thing: neither fighting, nor fleeing just freezing. Like a deer in the headlights. Like going limp whilst being viciously pummelled.

Surrender coping means passively rocking up to school every day despite feelings of anxiety and dread. Not acting one way or another for fear of making things worse.

In my opinion, mental health days are most likely to be useful for students who cope by surrendering. These kids might respond to an officially sanctioned day off to help them to reset.

Every policy change has unintended consequences. Australia often follows the United States with regards to policy changes, and so I think it’s likely that legislated mental health days will be introduced for students here. This might indeed be a positive change. And I suspect for some, legislated mental health days would be a literal life saver.

But for others, like Mary, they might be sadly underutilised. And for Martin, these days are likely to only entrench a pattern that wouldn’t be helpful at all.


* 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.