In September, Governor JB Pritzker signed SB1577 into law, providing all Illinois students with the ability to take up to five excused mental health days starting in January. Students taking a mental health day will not be required to provide their school with a doctor’s note and will be able to make up any work they missed on their day off. The new law will give students more opportunities to get the care they need. Once a student requests a second mental health day, a school counselor will reach out to their family, and the student may be referred to get professional help.

It’s relatively easy to know your kid is physically ill and shouldn’t go to school, but how do you know if your child needs a mental health day? And how do you know if your child is asking for a mental health day simply because they don’t want to go to school that day? Fortunately, the Child Mind Institute has some pointers to help you out in both cases.

What is a Mental Health Day?

After kids missed so much in-person class time in the past 18 months, it may feel wrong to not send a physically healthy child to school. But the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, including children. Taking a mental health day to rest and recharge at home can make a significant difference in how your child performs at school, but they may need your help to get the most out of one when they do take one.

When to Take a Mental Health Day

If your child is asking for a mental health day, that’s the time to check in with them and see what is going on in their life. Finding out why they want to take a mental health day can help you decide if that’s the best approach to what they’re facing. Some questions to ask:

  • Are they feeling overwhelmed?
  • Are they worried about their schoolwork?
  • Are they feeling anxious, sad, or stressed? If so, why?
  • Did something upsetting happen at school (e.g., a fight with a friend or something embarrassing in front of others)?
  • Did they just finish a difficult assignment like a long paper, a big project, or an important test that required a lot of studying or mental effort?

You can also think about what is going on at home, and if any events there might be adding to your child’s stress (e.g., death of a pet, a recent or upcoming move, a loved one’s illness)? If your child has been pushing through challenges and is feeling drained, a mental health day can be a good choice.

When Not to Take a Mental Health Day

Taking a mental health day can be beneficial, but not if it is being used to avoid a situation they are worried or anxious about. If your child is worried about a big test, staying home only reinforces that anxiety and often harms, rather than helps, their mental health. Likewise, an ongoing issue at school, such as problems with a friend or conflict with a teacher, are not going to be solved with a day off from school.

How to Make a Mental Health Day Count

A mental health day needs to have some focus on mental health to be useful. It can’t be a day to catch up on school assignments or poke around on social media all day. Some productive mental health day activities could include:

  • Taking a walk outside or spending some time in nature
  • Exercising
  • Listening to music or reading a book for pleasure
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Baking, drawing, painting, or any other activity your child finds relaxing

Your child’s mental health day also isn’t the day to get in that visit to the eye doctor or the dentist. By helping your child focus their mental health day on caring for themselves, you’ll be helping them learn what they need to do to care for their mental wellbeing.

When a Mental Health Day Isn’t Enough

A mental health day is not a substitute for treatment or long-term care. If there is a serious issue at school like bullying or an undiagnosed learning disorder, a one-day break is not going to fix the problem. If your child requests a second mental health day, talk to your child’s teacher about what may be going on and take advantage of the school counselor reaching out to connect with professional resources that may help your child get the mental health care they need.

Check out the full article at Child Mind Institute for more information on children and mental health days.