Is there a case for student mental health days?
From a TEDx talk by Hailey Hardcastle
Hailey Hardcastle, currently studying at the University of Oregon and a mental health advocate, established a network of student activists and helped change the law in order to make schools a better place for those struggling with mental health challenges.
Here is an abridged version of her story:
When I was a child, my mum and I made this deal - I was allowed to take three mental health rest days every term as long as I continued to do well in school. This was because I started my mental health journey when I was only six years old. I was what my teachers would call, "a worrier," but later on we found out that I have trauma-induced anxiety and clinical depression.
This made growing up pretty hard. I was worried about a lot of things that other children weren't, and school got really overwhelming sometimes. This resulted in a lot of breakdowns, panic attacks - sometimes I was super productive, and other days I couldn't get anything done - all happening during a time when mental health wasn't being talked about as much as it is now, especially youth mental health.
Some terms I used all of those rest days to the fullest. Others, I didn't need any at all. But the fact that they were always an option is what kept me a happy, healthy and successful student.
All of us have mental health. All of us have a brain that needs to be cared for in similar ways that we care for our physical well-being. Our head and our body are connected by much more than just our neck after all. Mental illness even manifests itself in some physical ways, such as nausea, headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath. So since mental health affects all of us, shouldn't we be coming up with solutions that are accessible to all of us?
When I was in high school, I began to realize mental health was much a bigger problem than just for me personally. I began hearing more and more stories from students of teen suicides. So in 2018 at our annual summer camp, we held a forum with about 100 high school students to discuss teenage mental health. What could we do?
We approached this conversation with an enormous amount of empathy and honesty, and the results were astounding. What struck me the most was that every single one of my peers had a story about a mental health crisis in their school. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24 in Oregon.
Over the next few months, with the help of some lobbyists and a few mental health professionals, we put forth a new law. The bill allows students to take mental health days off from school the same way you would a physical health day. We lobbied and researched and campaigned for our bill, and in June 2019, it was finally signed into law.
How this is playing out? Let's say a student is having a really hard month. They're overwhelmed, overworked, they're falling behind in school, and they know they need help. Maybe they've never talked about mental health with their parents before, but now they have a law on their side to help initiate that conversation. The parent still needs to be the one to call the school and excuse the absence and most importantly, that school has that absence recorded as a mental health day. They can keep track of just how many students take how many mental health days. If a student takes too many, they'll be referred to a school counsellor for a check-in. We can catch students who are struggling before it's too late.
We're hoping that this law can help signal to young kids the importance of taking care of themselves and practicing self-care and stress management - it could literally save lives.
It is always OK to not be OK, and it is always OK to take a break. It doesn't have to be a whole day; sometimes that's not realistic. But it can be a few moments here and there to check in with yourself. Mental health challenges are not going away, but as a society, we can learn how to manage them by looking after one another.
Listen to her 7 minute TEDx talk here.
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