Mental Health Days Help Kids, But Systemic Barriers Prevent Widespread Use

A Verywell Mind & Parents Study

The concept of the mental health day is not new, but as with many aspects of self-care, its importance may have been misunderstood or under-appreciated until the last couple years. Whether from pandemic stress, burnout, financial insecurity, or any number of other stressors, many of us—kids included—feel the need for a mental health day every now and then.

More and more, schools are recognizing this need and for the first time are allowing a set number of days for kids to stay home from school for mental health reasons. Together with Parents, Verywell Mind surveyed over 1,000 American parents or guardians of a child between ages 8-12 or 13-17 to find out more about the impact and use of mental health days for kids.

We found that parents are very positive about the idea of allowing kids to take mental health days, but a number of barriers prevent kids across the US from being able to take an excused day off when they may need it.

Kids Aren't Immune to Stress

While we may look back on our childhoods as a carefree existence, our kids don't see it that way themselves. The pandemic created a number of new stressors as well:

  • 60% of parents say their child's mental health has been at least somewhat affected by the pandemic
  • 36% have observed mood and behavior changes
  • 37% have observed that their child has a harder time socializing

That said, the biggest stressor for kids is one of the major constants in their lives—school. Americans feel that school contributes to their children's stress above all else.

Clearly, there is a market for mental health days for kids, and parents are eager to take advantage of this possibility if they think it can help their little ones. Our survey revealed very strong support for the idea:

  • 56% of parents have let their kids take a mental health day, and another 32% would consider it
  • 75% say they can be an effective tool to support a child's mental health
  • 74% believe that schools should offer mental health days

Why such enthusiasm? Perhaps because 54% of parents report that they are at least somewhat concerned about their kid's mental health, and 77% of parents who have let their child take mental health days feel that they had a positive impact.

Whether their child spent the day talking about their feelings, being in nature, playing video games, or simply relaxing, the time off provided a valuable opportunity to reset.

Illustrated bar chart showing how children cope with difficult feelings

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

The Growing Acceptance of Mental Health Days

A dozen US states have passed legislation in recent months allowing students to use mental or behavioral health reasons as a valid excuse for a school absence, with bills in a handful of other states proposing similar allowances.

"The pandemic, canceled activities, and remote learning contributed to an increasing kids’ mental health crisis, prompting many states to permit kids to take mental health days from school so they could focus on managing their symptoms," says Amy Morin, LCSW and Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind.

That still leaves students in most states without the ability to take excused mental health days—for now at least.

Kids may show their stress or anxiety in different ways than adults, but their concerns and struggles are no less valid. In fact, 58% of parents say they know their child needs a mental health day when they ask for one. The mental health awareness we've all observed in recent years appears to have extended to kids. And 69% of parents now think it's normal to take a mental health day.

The Barriers Preventing Widespread Use

Given the widespread acceptance of mental health days and the growing awareness of their benefits, it seems like a no-brainer that they should be universally available and utilized for kids and their parents alike.

A number of barriers, however, block the path to making mental health days a regular part of our children's lives.

Awareness

Nearly a third (32%) of American parents are not aware of the idea of mental health days. Additionally, 31% feel that their child is too young to have mental health issues in the first place; this despite research showing that children can show signs of depression and anxiety as early as pre-school.

Because the signs of mental health struggles may be less obvious than symptoms of physical illness (like a fever or runny nose), childhood stress may be easier to miss.

Availability

For the majority of parents who are aware of mental health days, there is still the question of access and availability. Among parents surveyed, only 31% say their child's school offers mental health days to students. While parents can still hold their child out of school if necessary, most schools do not yet facilitate the process.

Stigma and Consequences

About a quarter (26%) of parents are concerned about letting their child take a mental health day due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Meanwhile, 34% see mental health days as less legitimate than traditional sick days.

We're still struggling with openness and universal acceptance of the idea that mental health is health.

Logistics, Access, and Privilege

There are some practical reasons that some parents may be less likely to allow their kids to take mental health days. Essentially, other needs can make it more difficult for parents to hold their kids out of school, even to address some kind of mental distress. 38% of parents who do not let their kids take mental health days are most concerned about their child missing too much school and potentially falling behind.

Crucially, our survey showed a large disparity in access to mental health days, often coinciding with household income. Households bringing in over $100,000 a year are far more likely to have official mental health days available to their child:

  • 55% of parents with household income greater than $100k say their child's school offers mental health days
  • 20% of parents with household income less than $100k say their child's school does not offer them. Lower income households are almost 3 times less likely to have mental health days available to them.

There are related socioeconomic considerations that may come into play alongside the question of income.

"Presently, over half the country does not have legislation for mental health days in schools, and even where it is mandated, 1 in 5 parents can’t afford to let their kids take one," says Grace Bastidas, editor-in-chief of Parents, "They simply can’t miss work or pay for unexpected childcare, so taking a day to reset and recharge becomes a question of privilege for many families."

What This Means for You

In order for your child to benefit from taking a mental health day, it's far more complicated than simply letting them take one. You may need some or all of the following to be true:

  • You are aware that your child may need a mental health day, and are aware of the benefits.
  • Your child's school offers them, or you choose to hold them out as if it were a regular sick day.
  • If your child is younger, you are able to stay home with them, or find a childcare provider who can do so on short notice.
  • You are able to facilitate the time and space for your child to discuss their feelings and partake in activities that help them reset.

Amy Morin, LCSW


While challenges like socioeconomic status and lingering stigmas still prevent widespread use, our survey results show the beginning of parents’ acceptance of mental health days, which gives us hope that more parents and schools will follow suit.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Awareness of mental health issues is on the rise, and that awareness is beginning to extend to our kids in a way that is both meaningful and helpful. With further awareness, acceptance, and legislation, the majority of Americans can gain access to mental health days not only for themselves, but also for their kids.

Methodology

Verywell & Parents conducted a survey among 1,007 American parents from June 23-29, 2022. The survey was fielded online via self-administered questionnaire to an opt-in panel of respondents from a market research vendor. To qualify, survey participants must be the live-in parent or guardian of a child between the ages of 8-12 (tweens) or 13-17 (teens).

Quotas were used to ensure national representation for the parent’s gender, race/ethnicity and region using U.S. Census (2019 ACS) estimates as a benchmark. The median household income for our survey respondents is $69k, and the median age (of parents) is 40 years old.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Klitzing K von, Döhnert M, Kroll M, Grube M. Mental disorders in early childhoodDeutsches Ärzteblatt international. doi10.3238/arztebl.2015.0375

By Nick Ingalls, MA
Nick Ingalls, MA is the associate editorial director at Verywell Mind, managing new content production and editorial processes. He has been with Verywell since its inception in 2016.

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Amanda Morelli,
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Neetu Gupta,
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Sanskriti Sharma
Sanskriti Sharma

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