Even before the pandemic set in, alarming numbers of young people were suffering from mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. The stress of COVID-19 has exacerbated those struggles. Schools are working on ways to support students’ emotional trauma, including allowing excused absences for mental health days. Education Week asked five students how they felt during the pandemic, and what role mental health days might play in helping students nationwide.
Sara Falluji, rising junior, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Lexington, Ky.
With COVID, this year has been stressful and difficult. I noticed it in my friends. A lot of that stress for me has manifested in physical ways. It’s sort of a fatigue, and an inability to focus on school assignments.
I didn’t go [to school] in person. I was doing virtual. I wouldn’t really skip a class, but I took naps immediately after my last class. I didn’t even intend to, it was just happening. I’d struggle with getting work in on time because I couldn’t get the energy to finish. Typically, I get straight As, but this year I had a C and quite a few Bs.
We really need excused mental health days. There have been plenty of times I’ve needed one or a friend needed one, but stress is our normal and you just push through. I’ve never seen an avenue for taking a day like that, and didn’t want people to [see] me differently for it. In a competitive program like the one I’m in, anxiety is so normal, it’s like why would you take a day off when we’re all going through it?
Karla Pickett, rising sophomore, Fairfield Central High School, Winnsboro, S.C.
We don’t have excused mental health days. I most definitely would use them. Sometimes school can become overwhelming and you need a day to process it all.
I did virtual the whole year. I was able to maintain my grades. But it became overwhelming not being in a room with a teacher, not being there to get help you when you need it, to talk through the issues. It was really stressful. I was taking four dual-enrollment courses and it was very difficult.
My sister went to college, and we are the only two siblings, so not having her in the house to talk to was a difficult transition. I didn’t get to see any of my friends during the pandemic at all. I had a lot of anxiety. The pandemic was the main reason why. I didn’t want to get others sick. I was worried about my grandmothers, aunts, and uncles getting sick. And I wasn’t able to see them.
I really could have used mental health days. I was absolutely stressed out. I would have spent a day meditating, figuring out what I need to do to get back to me.
Ben Ballman, 2021 graduate, Winston Churchill High School, Potomac, Md.
I’ve been working on [student] mental health issues since the 8th grade. I had these friends, they’re not feeling so great, they don’t really see a point in living. Pretty extreme things for 13-year-olds. And I’m concerned; these are my favorite people in the world and I have no idea what to do.
I tried to learn more about it. I started reading articles and books. I started to be able to point [friends] in the right direction, where they could go for support, the resources they have. Over time, it snowballed. In high school, I’m doing it more and more, and I’m thinking, I’m not a professional! What the heck is going on here? Kids are coming to another kid. They should go to the counseling department. Sophomore year, I created a Google form, asking questions, like whether students feel supported by counselors. I sent it out across Montgomery County and got almost 500 responses from a lot of schools. It was a resounding negative response.
Kids don’t feel supported by counselors. They don’t feel welcome. They see a counselor, they rush through a checklist and get them out the door as fast as possible. I was really surprised by that. So I made a little team to help me reach out to students with more questions. And we interviewed counselors and administrators to get that perspective. That led to an open letter I sent to the board of education the summer after sophomore year, describing the issues and possible solutions. I met with the heads of counseling and psychology in the county, and it was good, but I never really heard anything.
I decided to get more students involved. We created a coalition called DMV Students for Mental Health Reform. The main point is to work with local delegates on legislation. In February, Delegate [Alonzo] Washington introduced HB461, which introduced mental health days for the first time in Maryland as a statewide measure. It passed the House, but stagnated in the Senate. We were working on some amendments.
There are three main arguments for mental health days. They allow students a way to support themselves outside school. School can be extremely stressful. You need to take a break, take a breather, focus on yourself for a bit. They also decrease stigma and allow more open conversation about mental health. They would also help schools practice mental health prevention. A lot of times, schools have resources, like programs, and counselors, but many times they don’t have the ability to see which students are struggling before it’s too late and it reaches a crisis situation.
Kylee Linnell, 2021 graduate, Phoenix High School, Phoenix, Ore.
I have a complicated history with mental health. I have [obsessive compulsive disorder], which is a whirlwind in itself; childhood trauma, anxiety stemming from OCD. I’ve struggled on and off with depression. I have good days and bad days.
I love the idea of mental health days. Our school is supposed to do them, but they’re still working out the kinks. Your parent has to call in. Sometimes kids just need a half hour. Like if I walk into my math class I’m gonna have an anxiety attack.
This past year we had COVID, and we also had the Almeda fire here. My emotions have been all over the board. In some ways, I did better, because I was able to distance myself from what’s going on because I didn’t see people, didn’t go to school every day. I watched a lot of TV in my room, got lost in a fictional world. But eventually it crashed down. I had a meltdown, I can’t do this anymore, can’t keep pushing it away.
So many people lost homes [in the fire]. It wasn’t clear how we were supposed to get online to go to school. Nothing went smoothly until December. If you had questions, you had to figure it out on your own. I tried to reach a school counselor. I was struggling, but so was everyone else. There just weren’t enough resources. Even if they do get back to you, their attention is divided among 100 students.
The most important thing schools can do is find some way to listen to student feedback about mental health. Our school gave us a survey at the end of the year. They asked us stuff they’ve never asked us before, like do you feel safe in school? Do you feel like you fit in? Are you happy? And all I could think was, why are you asking this now, when we’ve just graduated? I wish they’d asked us years ago.
Amber Kiricoples, 2021 graduate, Peabody High School, Peabody, Mass.
I struggle with mental health. It runs in my family. I go to therapy regularly. It got bad in high school. My friend and I proposed excused mental health days to our school committee. They were open to it, but we were never able to follow up. It got lost in the COVID fog. They are working with us on a school curriculum for mental health, though.
We need mental health days. It’s not some joke. It’s actually a time where you need to treat your mental well-being like you do your physical well-being. You get a sprained ankle, you don’t go to school. If you wake up with a panic attack, or anxiety, what good will it do you to sit in a building all day where you can’t let it out? You need to take care of yourself.
What do adults misunderstand? Well, for one thing, that if you’re having a bad day, if you have a little attitude, you’re not a bad person. If you can’t get out of bed one day, it’s not because you’re bad. You just can’t explain it.
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.