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Why stressed-out teens need mental health days as much as adults

As teen anxiety, depression, and suicide rates continue to rise, the idea of taking a mental health day from school has become increasingly popular. School districts around the country are canceling classes to give students, as well as staff, much-needed time off from the pressures of attending in-person school during the pandemic.

There have been more than 3,000 school closures specifically for mental health needs so far this year, according to Burbio, a digital platform that aggregates school event information. That represents more than a third of all school closures in 2021; the other two-thirds were for COVID-related or staffing reasons.

In conjunction with the teen mental health crisis, behavioral problems in classrooms have also gone up, exacerbating school stress. Mental health days not only give students and staff a break, they also help to reduce the stigma around mental health struggles.

What is a Mental Health Day?

Taking a mental health day from school is a chance for teens to reset their nervous system and get out of fight-or-flight mode. It’s a break from the everyday stress of tests, deadlines, and social pressures, in addition to the stressors brought on by the pandemic. A mental health day from school can give students the opportunity to practice stress relief exercises, rest, reflect, and recharge.

Moreover, teen mental health days help reduce the stigma around mental illness, building on the broader dialogue on this issue. Since the start of the pandemic, this conversation has continued to expand—most recently as a result of the US Surgeon General’s advisory on youth mental health.

Is Mental Health Day a Good Idea?

A mental health day can help students feel centered, refreshed, or re-energized, as well as maintain a healthy school-life balance. It can help manage academic burnout, manage stress and anxiety, and encourage kids to learn how to take care of their psychological well-being. All these benefits are vital to maintaining a student’s overall health and ability to engage in schoolwork and extra-curricular activities in the best way for the long term.

The academic demands students face impact their quality of sleep, cognitive functioning, and ability to manage stress. Students need to learn how to take care of themselves now, so they can establish healthy habits, skills, and boundaries that they will need lifelong. Realizing when you need and how to spend a mental health day is a great start.

What are the signs Your might need a Mental Health Day?

Teens all have different ways of managing and coping with stress. Some of the red flags that your you might need to take a break are:

  • Changes in mood: If you become irritable or angry more easily. You are overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, or depressed.
  • Personality changes: For example, you are typically very social but has suddenly changed to being more reserved.
  • Physical changes: Headaches, stomachaches, sleeping more or sleeping less, or appetite changes are common signals.
  • Interpersonal issues: Dealing with relationship changes among friends or challenges within the family at home.

What to Do on a Mental Health Day

There are many variations on how to take a mental health day. Here are 10 stress relief exercises to try when taking a mental health day from school.

Catch up on sleep.

Teens suffer more than any other age group from lack of sleep—due to homework, late-night phone use, and biological hardwiring that keeps them up later. In fact, fewer than 9 percent of teens get enough sleep. Teens can catch up on Zs the night before and the night after a mental health day. But they shouldn’t sleep away the day—it’s important to use the time to do things that truly boost happiness.

Take time to eat well.

Because they’re often rushed and overscheduled, teens are notorious for eating poorly or skipping meals altogether. That takes a toll, because good nutrition is essential for mental well-being, not just physical health. Scientists have identified specific nutrients that protect against depression. In addition, eating in a relaxed atmosphere, without time constraints, improves digestion and mood.

 Unplug.

Taking a mental health day from school is the perfect opportunity for a digital detox. Unplugging frees up time for IRL activities and also separates teens from social media, which has been shown to increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Spend time Outside

Because teens are in classrooms five days a week, their time outside is limited. Therefore, a mental health day is a great chance to spend time outdoors, proven to lower the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, stress, depression, and anxiety levels go down to prevent burnout from school.

Cultivate authentic connections.

Supportive, caring relationships—with peers, parents, siblings, and other relatives—are essential to adolescent well-being. Therefore, a teen mental health day might include quality, face-to-face time with a trusted friend or family member.

Move your body.

Studies show that stress relief exercises impacts serotonin levels, bolstering well-being and reducing depressive symptoms. Hence, taking a mental health day from school should include some form of movement—such as dancing, hiking, yoga, or sports. 

Express yourself. 

Visual art, music, and journaling are beneficial activities for processing emotions and tapping into creativity. “Creative pursuits provide a way to be grounded in the moment,” says Kristin Wilson, Vice President of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy. “In addition, creativity can give teens a feeling of mastery.”

Meditate.

Research has found that meditation is just as effective as antidepressants. And it doesn’t have to be done seated cross-legged on a cushion. Teens can take a mindful walk, paying attention to the sights, sounds, and scents around them. A slow yoga practice or breathing exercise can also support a meditative state of mind.

Help someone else.

Studies show that doing good for others makes us happier. So teens might spend time with a younger sibling, volunteer at an animal shelter, or help serve a meal at a soup kitchen while taking a mental health day from school.

Do things that spark joy.  

When teens slow down and tap into what they really need, they’re more likely to choose behaviors that support their thriving. That’s true on mental health days and every day.

What Not to Do on a Mental Health Day

Sleep all day, binge watch TV or play video games all day, enable school avoidance or anxiety, or reward missing school to go on a shopping spree or lunching with friends.

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