Kids and mental health: ‘We have to have it rooted in the fabric of our community’

Atlanta family therapist makes the case for mental health days in schools

The stress of the pandemic has taken a toll on kids, too, with a recent study showing 74% of parents believe students should have mental health days.

Across the nation, 12 states allow kids to take mental health days from school, but Georgia is not one of them. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 6 children ages 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year. That means in a classroom of 25 children, around four students are struggling mentally. Studies have also shown that mental health is a significant predictor of academic achievement and mental health resources in schools can improve academic outcomes.

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“(Mental health days) provide an opportunity and the space for students to reflect on their own experiences, their own emotions, their own feelings as they think about their lives, and as they work to promote overall healthy functioning and healthy mental health,” Dr. Darren Moore, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

How to take a mental health day

It’s important to note that mental health days are just a temporary solution; they do not solve deep-rooted problems with mental health. Mental health programming and increased access to resources in school can work together to create long-term solutions for students. However, taking a break and focusing on mental health can allow you to hit a reset button, rejuvenate and relax, according to Moore.

Here are some ways you can make the most out of your mental health day.

Once the last bell rings, there still should be mental health resources for children, Moore suggests. Schools should partner with professionals, agencies and providers and create initiatives so mental health extends beyond the classroom.

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Mental health in Georgia

Georgia ranks No. 48 in the nation for access to mental health care, according to Mental Health America. According to a June investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the recommended ratio for students to school psychologist is 500 to1, yet in Georgian schools that ratio is 6,390 to 1. The recommended ratio for students to social workers is 250 to 1, but in Georgian schools it’s 5,272 to 1. And the recommended ratio for school counselors to students is 250 to 1, yet is 447 to 1 in Georgia.

Moore insists that for universal implementation, policy changes from the state need to occur. School boards, political officials and Georgia leaders need to make mental health in schools a priority.

“We have to have it rooted in the fabric of our community. We have to continuously talk about the importance of mental health so that it can trickle down into the school system,” Moore said. “We do pay attention to it when there’s a school shooting, or when there’s something else that’s happening … . People are responsive, but we have to think about the bigger picture. There has to be more conversations among leadership to really promote health as opposed to just trying to intervene once something has already happened.”

To implement mental health days, Moore suggested two approaches for school systems to consider: the individualized and the formalized. Both require collaboration between students, parents, teachers and administrators to make mental health a priority.

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Individualized approach

The individualized approach allows each student to take a certain amount of mental health days a year, when they feel like they need a break. This permits students to assess their personal well-being and use a day off to manage stress or burnout.

“(The individualized approach is) customizable to the unique needs of the individual, as we know that people may experience issues or problems that may deal with depression, anxiety, and may need to take a mental health day based on something that’s currently happening in their own individual life,” Moore said.

In this approach, schools treat a mental health day like an excused absence or sick day. States enact the individualized approach in different ways. For example:

  • In Nevada, mental health professionals consult with students to decide whether a student should take a day off.
  • Colorado requires certain attendance policies before students can take a mental health day.
  • Students in Illinois can use a mental health day as they would a sick day. However, if they take a second mental health day, they may need to be referred to school support personnel.

“On the other side of that, the drawback for that perspective, would be that there’s no … uniform approach within the school system. So, for example, that individual student could miss a very important day at school,” Moore said.

Additionally, students may use mental health days to get out of schoolwork, an important test or use it as a way out of school. For this reason, parents and teachers should assess the reason their student wants to take a day off. According to the Child Mind Institute, you should see if your child is overwhelmed; if something embarrassing or upsetting happened in class; if they’re feeling anxious, stressed or sad; if they’re worried about schoolwork; if they just finished a big project or assignment that required a lot of hard work; or if something stressful happened at home.

“Once you know more about what your child’s needs are, you’ll be in a better position to decide whether taking the day off is the right choice,” the Child Mind Institute wrote on its website.

Because the individualized approach has so many other variables, some prefer the formalized approach, instead.

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Formalized approach

The formalized approach is a day off from school for every student, faculty member and administrator. Schools choose a couple days off in the calendar for every member of the school to dedicate to mental health. This approach allows everyone to take a break.

“A more formalized approach … really sends the message that this is something that is deemed important by the school,” Moore said. “So, having it be something that is coming from the top down, having the principal involved, the teachers involved, the staff involved that everyone is really involved in recognizing the importance of mental health. If they had a more formalized approach then the entire school could really reflect and take time to adjust mental health, not just an individual student based on a reaction or response.”

However, the downside of this perspective is that some students may view this as a normal holiday or day off from school. This approach requires mental health education and collaboration from parents to ensure their students are taking the day seriously. Professionals should come into classrooms and offer suggestions to students on how to use their day properly and remind them the importance of taking care of one’s mental health. Once at home, parents should ensure that their child is not on social media all day, playing video games or partaking in other mentally unhealthy activities.

Mental health programming within schools should complement the idea of mental health days, Moore added. Rather than just a day away from school, it needs to be a part of students’ education, whether that’s during the first week back at school, during orientation, at seminars or large assemblies.

“So, not just having licensed therapists available, but also having more proactive discussions around mental health within the school system. There needs to be more of a discussion about mental health programming within the education system,” Moore said. “There (needs to be) a combination of not just the mental health day where you could go home, but also really highlighting the importance of mental health and mental health treatment within the school system at a variety of levels.”

The formalized approach includes teachers and administrators, as well. This approach allows them to improve their mental health, fight burnout and be able to work with their students in their classroom, according to Moore.

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