It’s OK to Take a Mental Health Day

Woman relaxing on a couch.

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Key Takeaways

  • More jobs and schools are normalizing the idea of taking a "mental health day."
  • Policy-sanctioned mental health days could, in the long run, impact society for the better—but they cannot replace other types of mental health support.
  • To optimize your mental health day, do what helps you feel rejuvenated.

The idea of taking a "mental health day" has exploded in popularity in recent years. Now, jobs and schools are increasingly incorporating them into their policies.

In September, Illinois joined several states, from Arizona to Virginia, in allowing students a certain number of excused mental health days a year.

"We have been socialized to prioritize employment, our careers, and academia, as these things allow for us to make a living and take care of ourselves and families," Jette Johnson, LMSW, a psychotherapist based in New York, told Verywell via email. Yet, she said, sanctioned breaks from work or school have "been proven to improve effectiveness, focus, motivation, and mood upon return."

In a 2020 survey of almost 2,000 14-to-24-year-olds, Mental Health America (MHA) found that most said they need more support for their own mental health, as well as opportunities to learn more, train, and connect with mental health advocacy communities.

Debbie F. Plotnick, MSS, MLSP, vice president for state and federal advocacy at MHA, told Verywell that mental health days can be "absolutely helpful."

"The idea that people are encouraged to take some time to attend to their mental wellness is a wonderful game-changer," Plotnick said. "It's what our society has needed for a long time."

Benefits of Taking a Mental Health Day

The introduction of mental health days in schools is a welcome change.

In May 2020, a Harris Poll asked more than 1,900 14-24-year-olds if they've been struggling with mental health. Seven out of 10 said yes, with half saying they feel anxious or depressed “more frequently than their peers” (48%).

At the same time, 70-80% identified their schools as outlets for mental health education and support. Seventy-eight percent said schools should support mental health days, while 70% said they wished they learned more about mental health and coping mechanisms in school.

Days off for mental health, Plotnick said, can help regardless of whether that child or teen is experiencing a clinical mental health issue. "If there's something going on and they're not quite sure what it is, it's a good opportunity to reach out for help," Plotnick said.

Encouraging people to pause to attend to whatever's hurting can prevent the issue from snowballing, Johnson said.

"Mental health days allow for time to rejuvenate, refocus and recharge," Johnson added.

In the long run, these little breaks can interrupt the process of burnout, which, if unattended can have far-reaching negative effects. "Burnout can impact empathy, the ability to concentrate, agitation, and be detrimental to our overall mental health if unaddressed," Johnson added. "Without time to intentionally take a break and focus on personal wellness, we can become burnt out."

Policy Is Following Suit

Amidst growing conversation around mental health, schools are responding.

In 2018, Utah included "mental or physical illness" as one of the reasons that a student could be officially excused for their absence from school. The next year, Oregon passed a law that grants students five mental health days for each three‑month period. And just a few months ago, Illinois passed a bill that granted students five excused mental health days starting in January 2022.

Johnson hopes to see this trend grow. She herself participated in a committee that has advocated for mental health days for front-line social services staff in New York City. "We need to continue to head in a direction that demonstrates the importance of mental wellness as a part of overall physical wellness," she said.

While the trend could be setting a precedent for a healthier future society, its ability to do this depends on how policy is implemented.

Howard Adelman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Verywell via email that they have to be woven into research-backed and regulated policy, rather than declared on a case-by-case basis.

"Initiatives such as allowing for 'mental health days' need to be part of a unified, comprehensive, and equitable system of student/learning supports, not just one more ad hoc and piecemeal initiative," he said.

Mental Health Days Aren't Enough

Adelman co-directs the School Mental Health Project and its National Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, along with Linda Taylor, PhD. Based on their efforts to improve how schools address barriers to learning and teaching, they underline the need for entire systemic supports.

The current ways in which mental health days are being implemented aren't perfect. For example, some laws require that students receive parental consent to stay home for mental health, which can compromise access for kids whose parents and cultures stigmatize mental illness. 

There's also the missed material. After taking a mental health day, the student might need to spend the next week trying to catch up on everything, increasing stress.

Also, some states recommend that a school psychologist check-in with students after their second mental health day, but don't provide funding for a psychologist.

In 2019, mental health advocate and researcher Bernie Wong, MHS wrote that we have to be careful not to use mental health days as a panacea.

"Mental health days have their utility and benefits when implemented correctly and as a complementary solution to a comprehensive mental health strategy," he wrote, which seeks to address the roles that society, schools, and workplaces have in creating and perpetuating mental health problems.

But, when used as a "catch-all solution for all mental health challenges, they only perpetuate the cycle of burnout and absenteeism by ignoring the root causes of mental health challenges," he added.

What This Means For You

Mental health days are unlikely to solve all mental health issues or stressors, especially if they're chronic and clinical. Isolation can also exacerbate issues that may lead to self-harm. If you or someone you know may be struggling with self-harm and or suicidal ideation, get help beyond the mental health day immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 in English and Spanish at 800-273-8255. It can help you or a loved one get connected with further resources. Other resources like Crisis Text Line are also available in English and Spanish, via SMS and WhatsApp, without needing to make a call.

How to Have a Restful Mental Health Day

For now, mental health days can serve as a good check-in and chance to take care of yourself. So, what's a good way to do it?

Try fully disconnecting from your workspace or school where possible. "Not even looking at emails, phones, or anything associated with what you are trying to take a break from," Johnson said.

Next, participate in activities that make you feel good or fulfilled.

"Think intentionally about what your sources of joy or fulfillment are, and do those," Johnson said. Whether that be playing a game, exercising, making music, baking, being with friends, or dancing alone in your room. Do what gives you a jolt of positivity or clears your mind.

Regardless of whether these tips resonate, Johnston added, always make sure to prioritize your basic needs—eating, sleeping, remaining hydrated, and having a safe space to spend your time.

"Your mental health day can look however you determine it necessary," she said. "It does not have to be a long list of to-do or notable accomplishments. The goal is to nourish your full being and give yourself what you think you need."

And sometimes, a mental health day isn't enough to get you feeling better. If you or a loved one needs additional help, it's important to reach out to mental health professionals who can offer that support.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. New York TimesTeens are advocating for mental health days off school.

  2. Mental Health America. Young People’s Mental Health In 2020: Hope, Advocacy, And Action For The Future.

  3. Harris Poll. Teen Mental Health.

  4. FOX News. Students can take ‘mental health day’ under new legislation.

  5. CNBC. Students can now take ‘mental health days’ off from school in Oregon—here’s why.

  6. NPR. Kids In Illinois Will Soon Be Able To Take 5 Mental Health Days From School.

  7. Forbes. The Futility of Mental Health Days.

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.