My state, Illinois, has just issued (what I thought to be) exciting news. Starting January 1, 2022, students are allowed five excused mental health days from school. I was absolutely thrilled. I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember. I would have greatly benefited from being able to stay home, recalibrate, and recover from my panic attacks. However, “back in the day” kids were rarely diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health condition.
Instead, my constant stomach aches, heart palpitations, headaches, and fatigue were dismissed. I was a Nervous Nelly who, one doctor said, just “needed a punching bag.” Medical professionals often didn’t know what to do with kids like me, kids who today would be diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am thrilled that our state is recognizing the mental health needs of youth and is issuing some assistance, but it turns out a lot of people think this new rule is ridiculous.
I shared the news story in a local mom Facebook group. The comments surprised me. They were almost equally divided between those for the new law and those against. It became very clear that those who understood mental health, some of them having children with diagnoses, were thankful. Then there were the deniers, the ones who found the new law to be pointless.
One shared that if a kid was struggling, it was the parents’ fault — and the parent needed to work harder to help the kid. I don’t buy into the mental health diagnosis in a child is the “fault” of the parent. In fact, if a child manages to get properly diagnosed, kudos to the parent for believing and supporting the child, seeking help. But let’s talk about that “help” for a second.
Now, more than ever, because of COVID, many mental health professionals—counselors and doctors—are overwhelmed. The waitlists for an initial appointment is usually months. Even before COVID, getting a child into a psychiatrist, for example, could easily take six months or longer. Once the child is seen, then there’s evaluations—which require more appointments. If the child is finally diagnosed, oftentimes they then are advised to find a qualified therapist, which, you guessed it, takes months.
All of these appointments take place during the day, Monday through Friday. Very few counselors, due to the boundaries they put in place for their own mental health, see patients on weekends, evenings, or holidays. Parents have two choices: pull their kids from school and risk an unexcused absence (which can have consequences) or don’t go to the appointment.
Another person commented that they don’t get why there’s so much more “mental health” issues in kids these days. Basically, her line of thinking is that kids these days are fragile, entitled, and whiny. They just need to toughen up, suck it up, and go to school—where they belong. Back when she didn’t want to be at school, she just ditched her classes that day. Why do kids need designated mental health days? (Hey, Karen. Mental health is legit and not an excuse. But since you can’t understand that, let me clue you in.)
It’s simple. Among today’s youth, that’s children three to seventeen, 7.1% have anxiety, which is 4.4 million children. About 1.9 million children, or 3.2% of the three to seventeen population, have depression. That’s a whole lot of kids.
Anxiety, something I have myself, can cause debilitating symptoms. Some of these symptoms are physical, such as “sweating and dizziness.” They may avoid social activities, have fears regarding the future, struggle with separation from their parent, and “worry that a parent or loved one may die.”
Depression is “a mood disorder that can cause someone to feel sad, irritable or hopeless.” It has the possibility to impact a youth’s “sleep, appetite or relationships with others.” Additionally, it may cause a person to “lose interest in hobbies or activities” that the person “once enjoyed.” There are cases, which are more severe, where “depression can lead to thoughts of suicide.” In 2019, about 9% of high school aged children “attempted suicide at least once over the course of the school year.”
Of course, there are many other possible mental health diagnosis, and some kids may have two or more. As children get older, they are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Rates of mental health diagnoses have continued to climb over the years. This tells me that our older kids may need these excused mental health days more than ever before, especially for initial evaluations and then follow up support.
My response to this woman is that if she doesn’t like mental health days, don’t take them if offered. If she doesn’t personally need them, then lucky her for not suffering from a mental health disorder. But I feel sorry for her kid—if she has one—that if they legitimately had a diagnosis, she would tell them to suck it up rather than get them the help they need? She would rather her child suffer from her perpetuating a mental health stigma than believe her child and utilize the five excused mental health days to create a treatment plan or allows her child to rest in the safety of their own home? That’s just downright negligent.
The reality is this—when a child is dysregulated—likely from an unmet need such as enough sleep, hunger or thirst, or a mental health flare, they aren’t learning. To force them to sit in a classroom only pushes them to pretend like they are fine and suffer in silence. When my anxiety is peaking, which means I’m feeling unsafe, I cannot be told or taught a thing. Trying to teach someone algebra or grammar in the midst of a panic attack is fruitless.
I also don’t understand why children should be punished for seeking help, struck with an unexcused absence (possibly getting a zero on missed assignments), when I thought the point of school was to learn. What about learning self-advocacy? What about learning about whole body health versus just sex ed, for example? Mental health is health. A mental health diagnosis is just as valid, just as important, as a physical health diagnosis. Kids need support, they need to time and training (via a professional) to develop healing habits and coping mechanisms, so that they can proceed to become successful adults.
The ableism in the comments was absolutely infuriating. Mental health is still stigmatized, despite how very real it is. When I was a child, dealing with relentless anxiety, I was blown off. I truly began to believe I was crazy and it was all just “in my head.” Thankfully, I was diagnosed as an adult and began the hard work in therapy, reparenting my inner child. I don’t want other children to go through that. It’s exhausting, expensive, and time-consuming.
Just because something has always been a certain way, doesn’t mean it should stay that way—including how we treat a person of any age with a mental health diagnosis. It’s unfair to punish them (us) for dealing with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or whatever else we may have. I’m so thankful my state has decided that youth mental health matters enough to warrant an excused absence. Now, if we can get the same for our teachers, and all employees for that matter, we’d be on the right path.