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Two male university students hanging out on a campus's lawn

One professor at San Diego State University created built-in mental health days for his students to refocus on themselves. After each break, students provide a short written reflection on how they spent their time.

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Offering mental health days as a means of helping students destress and address their wellness continues to grow in popularity among higher education practitioners.

When asked what solutions they would take to ease stress on campus, several student respondents in a 2023 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse said they would allocate days in the academic calendar for students to study or prioritize their mental health.

“It just seems impossible to take a mental health day currently because of the amount or [sic] coverage I’d miss from missing a day of class,” wrote one student from Macalester College.

One professor at San Diego State University incorporates three mental health days into his syllabus, giving students 90 minutes back to prioritize themselves and their own care as a group. The initiative requires students to share how they spent their time, encouraging conversations around self-care and mindful rest.

The background: In recent years, 12 states have passed laws allowing K-12 students to take mental health days or created policy language around excused absences for mental health issues. The practice is less common in higher education and is often at the discretion of the professor.

Student government leaders at Illinois State University petitioned for legislation to allow university students to take five mental health days, paralleling existing laws for K-12 learners. Legislators hope to pass the bill this year.

A National Need

Beyond students, workers across the country are advocating for more opportunities to prioritize their health and well-being.

The November 2023 Bentley-Gallup Business in Society Report found 74 percent of U.S. workers believe providing mental health days would positively impact their well-being.

Most college students do not receive designated mental health days, but faculty members may excuse absences in their classes for health reasons. Jay Sheehan, a professor in the School of Theatre, Television and Film at San Diego State University, was inspired to offer mental health days to students due to his own mental health struggles while he was an undergrad.

“It wasn’t really talked about, and back then, the professors didn’t really take the time to check in with their students,” Sheehan says. “I don’t think that the teachers really knew what to look for or even acknowledge that students like myself were struggling.”

Sheehan was inspired to offer mental health days after listening to a TED talk by Hailey Hardcastle, a high school student who lobbied state representatives in Oregon to pass the state’s bill allowing for absences due to mental health concerns.

A built-in break: Early in his career at SDSU, Sheehan would share mental health resources with his students, but he made mental health days an official offering during stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Those ended up being for me as much as they were for the students,” Sheehan explains.

Sheehan now embeds three mental health days throughout the term. On those days, the class does not meet, but instead students are encouraged to use the 90-minute period to focus on their health and well-being.

The excused mental health days are spread out about every five weeks in a 15-week semester, which Sheehan will adjust depending on the academic calendar. Each of Sheehan’s four courses has mental health days incorporated.

After each mental health day, students submit a short, written reflection (one to two paragraphs) on how they spent their time. There are no assigned activities, but there are two nonnegotiables: no sleeping and no studying for other classes.

“I encourage them to do something creative, or bake cookies or read a book or call their parents—whatever it is that would bring them some sense of joy for 90 minutes,” Sheehan says. Other suggestions include riding a bike, cooking a meal, playing an instrument or watching Netflix.

The impact: The results have been “extraordinarily positive,” Sheehan says. Since he started offering mental health days, 100 percent of students who participate turn their assignments in on time and utilize the time well.

Sheehan also participates and is held accountable, reporting back to his students on how he spent his 90-minute mental health day. Students set the rules for his time: no emails, no texting, no phone calls and no meetings.

“By all of us participating, it makes for a better energy in the classroom when we return and share our experiences,” Sheehan says.

Do you have a wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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