The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the very concept of normal life, and now an entire generation of children impacted by global school closures and mask mandates are standing on the precipice of perhaps the largest mental health threat in generations.
According to the CDC, the number of emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among children and adolescents increased 31% in 2020. These numbers represent a very real consequence and dangerous trajectory of the stress and isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to UNICEF, the children most at risk of declining mental health include those who were forced from their homes, scarred by conflict and serious adversity, or deprived of access to schooling, protection and support. With COVID-19 school closures, increasing unemployment and poverty, and a rise in domestic violence, it’s easy to see how many U.S. children could fall into this category.
As a result of the ongoing conversation about children’s mental health, several states including Illinois, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Virginia have passed laws allowing all school-age children to exercise up to five excused mental health days off of school. According to an article published in The New York Times, taking days off from formal education can be helpful for children of any age, citing the fact that children as young as preschool are still susceptible to stress and exhaustion.
In many ways, these new laws are a useful screener for which kids might be struggling and feeling overwhelmed. In Illinois, children who utilize their second mental health day will be contacted by their school counselor to check in and see if additional services are needed.
While these laws appear to have their hearts in the right place, there is one important issue that these laws fail to address: Which elementary school-aged children are free to stay home from school during the workweek, and are they representative of the most vulnerable population of children?
In 2020, nearly 19 million children lived in single-parent families, the majority of which were headed by single mothers. According to a 2019 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for single-mother families is nearly five times greater than that of married-couple families. In a recent report, the CDC found that children living below the federal poverty level are more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. And while children in lower-income households were diagnosed with mental illnesses at greater rates, they were less likely to seek or receive care.
If the only children able to exercise mental health days are the children whose parents have employment that allow them to take sick or vacation time, the population of students in greatest need will once again miss out on this important opportunity. Single-parent households simply may not be able to facilitate mental health days for their children due to financial and logistical barriers.
To date, there doesn’t appear to be accommodation for serving this population of students in greatest need of mental health services, or whether these new laws are offering unequal privilege to students whose parents are available during the working day.
Families struggling to put food on the table for their children usually do not have the option to just skip work for the day in order to stay home with their children. In addition, many of these high-risk children rely on school-supplied breakfasts and lunches for their meals during the week as well. So, the question becomes, are children who are living with single parents or two-income working households being given equal access to these mental health days?
While these new laws highlight the importance of safeguarding the mental health and well-being of our youngest and most vulnerable population, they fall short of accomplishing true equity.
In order for mental health days to offer equal opportunity for the students in greatest need, local school districts, lawmakers and mental health providers need to team up to offer alternative accommodation for the students who need a day off from traditional educational activities but can’t stay home. And this idea isn’t entirely novel.
Thirty-nine Utah schools now have wellness rooms on campus where students who are feeling overwhelmed throughout the day can go, assess their feelings and spend a few moments calming themselves. These wellness rooms are often dimly lit, with soothing music, comfortable chairs and yoga mats. Some have meditative aids like colorful, bubbling lamps or essential oil diffusers. Some schools in Colorado are offering similar rooms called “oasis rooms,” which are staffed by trained counselors and offer access to other resources.
While these rooms are not designed for all-day retreats or as nonacademic day care, something similar operating within each school district could offer a potential alternative for students who do not have a stay-at-home option for mental health days.
Mary Derbish holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is working toward a master’s in social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.