Why taking a mental health day is often not enough

Key Takeaways

  • Often, when people struggle with their mental health, employers or friends tell them to “take a mental health day,” but this is not a holistic solution to the growing mental health crisis.
  • Real investments in mental health include: improved mental health education in K through 12 schools, more support for universities, and comprehensive health care reform.

You’ve probably had someone tell you this before: “Oh, just take a mental health day.”

This is not a bad suggestion. Experts say mental health days can help people feel recharged and ready to return to work. But they are not a long-term solution to the mental health crisis facing the United States.

Fittingly, the theme of World Mental Health Day this year is Investing in Mental Health. Investing requires more than taking the occasional mental health day, and experts say it needs to start at work.

“If companies can see their employees as people, not as productivity machines, productivity will likely increase, because when people feel good emotionally, they are more productive,” says Eve Rosenfeld, a doctoral student in psychology at SUNY Buffalo.

Sometimes mental health days can help

Taking a vacation can help you feel better when you’re struggling emotionally. “A mental health day gives our bodies and our brains time to rest and repair,” says Jeffrey Cohen, MD, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“When we work, we are often in a ‘doing mind,’ which is an aspirational and goal-oriented state of mind where we focus on solving problems,” says Cohen. “To be psychologically healthy, we must spend time in ‘being present,’ which is the doing mind and not the present-oriented, where we focus on the uniqueness of each moment.”

Doing things you enjoy also has proven mental health benefits. “Pleasant activity scheduling, also known as behavioral activation, is one of the most well-researched treatments for depression and is proven to boost mood,” says Cohen.

Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD

To be psychologically healthy, we must spend time in ‘mindfulness’, which is the mind of doing nothing and is not present-oriented, where we focus on the uniqueness of each moment.

– Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD

To get the most out of your mental health day, try committing to doing nothing, says Broderick Sawyer, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in race-based trauma and mindfulness. She suggests that people make a list of things that make them feel good and then choose to do something from that list on Mental Health Day.

“If you’re going to take a mental health day, actually take the day off,” says Sawyer. “Your email isn’t open. You’re just doing what fills you up.”

If you have a history of depression, watching movies all day can exacerbate your symptoms. Sawyer suggests making plans to visit family or friends, exercise or yoga, or cook.

Why mental health days are a temporary solution

Most part-time employees do not receive sick time and consequently cannot afford to take vacation. “It’s a privilege to be able to take a mental health day,” Sawyer said. “Those who have the hardest time are the ones who actually need time off the most.”

Marginalized communities such as black people and LGBTQ+ people Facing higher rates of poverty, homelessness, and more discrimination. They also have poor mental health outcomes throughout their lives. These two issues can feed a cycle of job insecurity, poor mental and physical health, and debt.

Broderick Sawyer, PhD

When you’re literally fighting for your life and trying to get the systems to recognize you so you don’t die, it’s traumatic.

– Broderick Sawyer, Ph.D

When marginalized people aren’t working, they may participate in escalating advocacy efforts like Black Lives Matter protests, which further harm mental health, Sawyer said. “You have to maintain a certain level of energy to protest,” he says. “But… when you’re literally fighting for your life and the systems are trying to recognize you so you don’t die, it’s traumatic.”

Taking an occasional vacation here is not enough to heal the trauma caused by systemic racism and discrimination. Additionally, even when mental health days are accessible, many are afraid to take them because of the stigma associated with mental illness.

“You may feel uncomfortable telling your boss or your employer that you need to use a mental health day, because you may feel that it communicates to them that there is something wrong with you or that you are not a serious employee or that you are concerned about your work. Very overwhelmed,” Rosenfeld said. “If you’re taking mental health days, that promotion on the table could be at risk, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

What real investment in mental health looks like

Rosenfeld, Sawyer and Cohen all say employers need to invest more in mental health. Besides benefiting employees, it will also save the company money.

A 2018 analysis by Penn State University found that “one additional poor mental health day in a month was associated with a 1.84% reduction in the growth rate of real per capita income, resulting in $53 billion less gross income per year.” Researchers say this shows how much businesses can benefit by investing in employee mental health from the start.

Insurance companies also don’t provide enough coverage for mental health, Cohen said, noting that a 2019 Mental Health Treatment and Research Institute report found that mental health visits are five times more likely to be out-of-network. Primary care visits.

“Unfortunately, going out of network is often the only option for mental health treatment,” says Cohen. “Many mental health providers cannot accept insurance because insurance companies do not adequately reimburse mental health providers for their services.” He says employers can proactively offer out-of-network benefits to employees for mental health treatment.

Broderick Sawyer, PhD

There is no mental health education in the K through 12 (school) system that helps people prevent the need for a mental health day in the first place.

– Broderick Sawyer, Ph.D

But Sawyer notes that investing in mental health needs to be a collaborative effort between corporations, government agencies, schools and universities, and nonprofit groups. “There is no mental health education in the K through 12 (school) system that helps people prevent the need for a mental health day in the first place,” he says.

Additionally, governments can invest in mental health by paying for treatments that work. “Not all mental health treatments are effective,” says Cohen. “Cognitive behavior therapy has the most research support and is the most helpful treatment for many people in clinical practice. It’s not enough for the government to provide access to mental health treatments; people deserve access to treatments that are proven to actually work.”

Addressing the growing mental health crisis in the United States is multifaceted. It won’t happen in a few mental health days.

What does this mean for you?

If you can take mental health days when you need them, you should. But remember what you really need. Would you feel bad if you lay around and watch TV most of the day? If so, try doing something that makes you happy, like going on a trip.

If you can’t take mental health days, Sawyer recommends “taking inventory.” Write down your daily activities and note what causes you stress and what brings you joy. Then, “edit” your days as best you can If you notice that you’re more anxious after drinking two cups of coffee and watching the news, for example, drink one cup of coffee and don’t watch the news.

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