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Why Taking a Mental Health Day Often Isn't Enough

Young person looks out a window with a sad expression.

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Key Takeaways

  • October 10 is World Mental Health Day, and this year it's dedicated to investment in mental health.
  • Often, when people are struggling with their mental health, they're told by employers or friends to "take a mental health day," but that is not a holistic solution to the worsening mental health crisis.
  • Real investments in mental health include: better mental health education in K through 12 schools, more support in universities, and comprehensive healthcare reform.

You might've had someone say it to you before: "Oh, just take a mental health day."

It's not a bad suggestion. Experts say mental health days can help people feel replenished and ready to return to work. But they are not a long-term solution to the mental health crisis the U.S. is facing, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and one of the most divisive presidential elections in history.

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

"If companies can view their employees as human beings, not as productivity machines, productivity will actually probably increase, because when people feel mentally well, they're more productive," says Eve Rosenfeld, a doctoral student in psychology at SUNY Buffalo.

Sometimes Mental Health Days Can Help

Taking days off 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, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. "When we are working, we are often in 'doing mind' which is an ambitious and goal-oriented state of mind where we are focused on problem solving. To be psychologically healthy, we must also spend time in 'being mind', which is nothing-to-do mind and present-oriented, where we are focused on the uniqueness of each moment."

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

Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD

To be psychologically healthy, we must also spend time in 'being mind', which is nothing-to-do mind and present-oriented, where we are focused on the uniqueness of each moment.

— Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD

To get the most out of your mental health day, you should try to commit to doing nothing, says Broderick Sawyer, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in race-based trauma and mindfulness. He suggests that people make a list of things that make them feel good, and then pick something to do off of that list when you take a mental health day. "If you're going to take a mental health day, actually take the day off," he says. "You don't have your email open. You're doing exactly what replenishes you."

If you have a history of depression, watching movies all day could exacerbate your symptoms, so he suggests making plans to see family or friends, exercising or practicing yoga, or cooking.

Why Mental Health Days Are a Temporary Solution

Most part-time employees do not receive paid sick time and can't afford to take time off as a result. "It is a privilege to be able to take a mental health day," Sawyer says. "The people who have the most difficult time actually getting the time off are the ones who need it the most."

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

Broderick Sawyer, PhD

But when you're fighting literally for your life and trying to get systems to acknowledge you so that you don't die, that's traumatic.

— Broderick Sawyer, PhD

When marginalized people are not working, they might be participating in growing advocacy efforts like the Black Lives Matter protests, which take a further mental health toll, Sawyer says. "You have to maintain a certain level of energy to engage in protests," he says. "But... when you're fighting literally for your life and trying to get systems to acknowledge you so that you don't die, that's traumatic." Taking an occasional day off here and there is not enough to heal the trauma caused by systemic racism and discrimination.

Additionally, even when mental health days are accessible, many people fear taking them due to the stigma associated with mental illness. "You might feel uncomfortable telling your boss or your employer that you need to use a mental health day, because maybe you feel that it communicates to them that there's something wrong with you or that you're not a serious employee or that you're too overwhelmed with your work," Rosenfeld says. "That promotion that was on the table might be at risk if you're taking mental health days, and that shouldn't have to be the case."

What Real Investment in Mental Health Looks Like

Rosenfeld, Sawyer, and Cohen all said employers need to invest more in mental health. In addition to the benefits to employees, it would also save companies money.

A 2018 analysis from Penn State University found that "a single extra poor mental health day in a month was associated with a 1.84% drop in the per capita real income growth rate, resulting in $53 billion less total income each year." Researchers on the study said it showed how much businesses stand to gain by investing in employee mental health from the beginning.

Insurance companies also do not provide adequate coverage for mental health, Cohen says, noting that a 2019 report commissioned by the Mental Health Treatment and Research Institute found that a mental health visit is more than five times as likely to be out of network compared to a primary care visit.

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

Broderick Sawyer, PhD

There's no mental health education in K through 12 [school] systems to help people prevent the need for mental health days in the first place.

— Broderick Sawyer, PhD

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's no mental health education in K through 12 [school] systems to help people prevent the need for mental health days in the first place," he says.

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

Addressing the growing mental health crisis in the U.S. has to be multi-pronged, but it won't happen through a few mental health days.

What This Means For You

If you can take mental health days when you need them, then you should. But be mindful of what you actually need. Will you feel worse if you lie around and watch TV for most of the day? If so, try doing something that makes you happy, like going for a hike.

If you can't take mental health days, Sawyer recommends "taking inventory." Write down your daily activities, and note which ones cause you stress and which bring you joy. Then, "edit" your days in the ways you can. If you notice you are more anxious after having two cups of coffee and watching the news, for example, have one cup of coffee and don't watch the news.

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