I’m not a mental health professional. I’m not a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a social worker, or a counselor. What I’m about to say is grounded only in my practice as a teacher, my life as a parent, and my volunteerism as a leader in my faith community.
In our school system we’ve been spending a lot of time and energy in the past few years breaking down barriers and stigma about mental illness. We talk more about mental health and are far more aware of the anxiety, stress, depression, and trauma that students are grappling with every day. The Canadian Mental Health Association tells us that while “20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime,” we will all be indirectly affected by mental illness through our connections with colleagues, friends, and family. The economic cost, factoring in both the cost of health care and the time off work, is counted in the tens of billions – and that’s here in Canada where our population is about a 10th of that of our American neighbors.
These are huge, scary numbers and we are right to put resources into educating students, teachers, and parents about mental health. We’re right to work towards de-stigmatization and we need to keep at it. There is far more work to do.
But there’s something in our practice that contradicts all of this good work we are doing. While we consider fighting a cold or a sore throat – minor physical health complaints that don’t require a doctor’s visit – a valid reason for missing school, we don’t consider sub-clinical mental health concerns nearly as valid. If my kids are feeling anxious or stressed or just a little sad, I feel guilty keeping them home for a day although I know that just one day off, away from the social and academic pressures of school, a day to just be themselves and follow their own agenda, can make all the difference. It can restore their enthusiasm for school and help them to feel more positive about facing a challenge.
I also know that minor mental health concerns aren’t generally a valid reason for missing work. Like many teachers, I can feel when my stress levels are reaching a dangerous point, when I stop coping well, when I’m starting to feel negative and depressed about the challenges of my job. At those times I need a day to reset, a day off that isn’t focused on doing laundry, shuttling kids between birthday parties, and preparing food for the week ahead. I need a day to take care of my mental health. A little bit of “time out of joint”, to quote Hamlet, can make all the difference. Do I take that day? Not often. Most often I’ll wait until I get physically sick, until I inevitably catch one of the many viruses circulating through a school so that I feel I have a “real” reason to miss work. I know I’m not alone.
I’m a very healthy persons; I’m lucky not to be mentally ill. I’m blessed not to be dealing with a crisis. But I wonder how many crises we could prevent if our efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness extended to prioritizing good mental health and promoting preventative self-care. Maybe there should be a “mental health day” box in our attendance systems that we could check. Maybe we need to let parents know that it’s okay to take a day once in while. Maybe we need to tell ourselves that too.