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Dad Daze: Why children need mental health days off from school

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 10, 2021

Alan Ruck, Matthew Broderick and Mia Sara star in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”  (Jim Zenk/Paramount Pictures)
Alan Ruck, Matthew Broderick and Mia Sara star in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” (Jim Zenk/Paramount Pictures)

John Hughes was ahead of his time when crafting his “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” script. The iconic 1986 film’s protagonist, his girlfriend and best friend skip school to take a break and enjoy a surreal day in Chicago. Hughes’ message that students need a mental health day was greeted with a smirk a generation ago.

Why would energetic kids, of all people, need a hiatus from class? Well, it’s appropriate that Hughes’ native state, Illinois, where all his teen films were shot, is allowing students as many as five mental health days off from school per year starting in January.

It makes sense to me.

I never came close to perfect attendance, the most overrated scholastic virtue, while coming of age in Philadelphia. As a kid, I pulled Bueller-esque stunts to take days off. My kids didn’t have to do the same. I’ve encouraged my children to take days off after showing signs of burnout. It’ll be fascinating to see who follows Illinois’ lead.

“All 49 (remaining) states should adopt the same thing as Illinois,” Dr. Kim Burgess, a board-certified psychologist from Rockville, Maryland, said. “Kids need to rest, rejuvenate and reset. I gave my three children mental health days.”

The problem is that a mental health day is not a valid excuse for an absence, which bothers Burgess. “Why do we have to justify an absence for something physical?” Burgess said. “It’s all right to miss school if they break a finger or tear their ACL. But what if your brain is so stressed out that it needs a break?”

Great question the day after Oct. 10, aka World Mental Health Day.

According to Burgess, scholastic mental health issues have risen dramatically during the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, experts have noted record-breaking increases in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, violence and suicide from elementary school to college age.

It’s crucial for parents to be aware of and advocate for their children when they show signs that they may be struggling with their mental health. Parents should look for the following signs that may signal their child is distressed from anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns, according to Burgess.

Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality. Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. Changes in sleeping or eating. Intense or frequent outbursts and extreme irritability. Difficulty concentrating.

“You really need to be connected to your children, and you have to be a savvy parent,” Burgess said.

To make matters worse, the future is uncertain. Children need as much stability as possible. A day or two to take a step back is ideal. It’s not uncommon in the workplace for mental health days.

My daughter Jillian, 22, started a full-time gig in August, and part of the package is four mental health days, one a quarter. If adults are allotted time off to take their mind off the grind, children certainly need a break, as well.

My childhood wasn’t yesterday, but I recall how complex, challenging and confusing adolescence was, and it’s not any easier today. There’s the stress of being accepted into colleges of choice, girlfriend/boyfriend drama, endless extracurricular activities and bullying. Regarding the latter, cyber-bullying plagues in perpetuity. It’s no wonder so many children are distressed.

Give the kids a break. Let’s look back at the magic Hughes made with “Ferris Bueller.” The protagonist recognizes that his friend is slipping into a downward spiral. The attempt to resurrect him with an exhilarating day is laudable. However, most children just need a relaxing eight-hour break from tests, classes and the pace of the school day every now and again.

Hopefully mental health days will be universal. It’s something to think about after observing World Mental Health Day, which curiously is on a Sunday.

Sometimes, children need to step away from the vacuum they’re in and bask in what’s happening. Hughes nailed that in “Ferris Bueller” with the most memorable line in the film. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Class dismissed!

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