Senior Caleb Coleman, a public health major, takes a day every few weeks to sleep in, read books unrelated to his classwork and travel to his hometown of Fort Smith for family, friends and relaxation. Avoiding emails, Blackboard and his backpack, he completely detaches from school, he said.
Coleman thinks that professors should excuse mental-health days due to the demands of college life, he said.
“College is a very stressful time for a lot of students for a lot of reasons,” Coleman said. “I think that if you don’t take a break every now and then, you could run yourself into the ground.”
The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that only 17 percent of the U.S. population is functioning at optimal mental health. Middleton’s days off are what most students call a “mental-health day.” Students often use these days to relax, recharge and rejuvenate while taking a break from the everyday stress and anxiety induced by students’ responsibilities.
Over the course of 24 years of teaching, English professor Mohja Kahf came to realize that student attendance issues are often not a result of laziness but rather unseen barriers like mental-health issues, she said.
This awareness that students are struggling with problems that are not always visible has influenced Kahf’s attendance policy, which allows each student in the class one excused mental-health day. Whether it is used to get ahead on schoolwork or get a massage, Kahf encourages students to use the day to do whatever best takes care of them, she said.
“It’s not my job to resolve all of the problems going on in my students’ lives, but it’s important for me to bear in mind that students are struggling with problems that we can’t always see,” Kahf said. “You never know what somebody may be going through.”
The excused mental health day in Kahf’s attendance policy is not restricted to students who are dealing with mental illness or a crisis, it is something that any student who is feeling overwhelmed can access, Kahf said.
Senior Abby Middleton, a journalism major, struggles with anxiety. She occasionally misses class to maintain good mental health.
“There are days when my anxiety is just too much to handle on its own, so school seems impossible,” Middleton said. “On those days, I give my mind a break. I relax in a bath, trying to breathe easy and slow my thoughts down.”
Junior Anna Kinsey, an apparel merchandising and product development major, misses school occasionally to take time for herself and give her mind a break. Sometimes, she relieves school-related stress by meditating or getting a facial or massage at the spa, she said.
“It’s important for students to take the time to care for themselves mentally and emotionally so that they can feel like the best versions of themselves,” Kinsey said.
Josette Cline, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services, thinks that maintaining optimal mental health is inherently tougher for students, she said.
“Being a student is a tough gig versus those of us who have a full-time job that allows sick days and vacation days,” Cline said. “I know that students get stuck between what faculty expects them to do and what they feel like they can do.”
Adnan Ali Khalaf Alrubaye, a professor of cell biology, does not have a written policy regarding mental-health days. While attendance is mandatory, he is always willing to accommodate students who need time to take care of themselves, he said.
“Any student who comes to me and says that they have an issue and would like to postpone an exam or something, I’m happy to do that every single time they contact me,” Alrubaye said. “If there’s something we can do to help students, we better do it so we won’t regret it later.”
Cline gives mental health and counseling presentations to groups of professors, and it’s no surprise to her that many professors attend the sessions, she said.
“The faculty and staff here really want to know how to help our students,” Cline said. “They’re very willing to be part of the solution to mental health because they know it takes a village.”
Coleman thinks that maintaining optimal mental health is just as important for students as maintaining any other aspect of health, he said.
“Health lies on a continuum and is made up of many components, including mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellness,” Coleman said. “It’s important to be healthy in all of those aspects in order to maximize productivity and focus.”
Alrubaye has prioritized the mental health of his students so that they will be able to perform their best academically, he said.
“Student health, wellbeing and success are top priorities of this campus,” Alrubaye said. “Student success won’t come unless students are mentally fit and able to do their work.”
Middleton thinks that teachers do not prioritize mental health when they do not understand the academic consequences of poor mental health, she said.
“Emotions are powerful,” Middleton said. “If your mental-health state is not well, it’s nearly impossible to absorb any education.”
Coleman thinks that it would help students if their professors encouraged them to be open about concerns they are having, he said. He would like to see professors provide resources that help students maintain and cope with stress and mental-health issues.
Alrubaye has already started implementing these resources into his syllabi. Last year, he added a section on his syllabus with resources for students in need of academic and health support, such as the Pat Walker Health Center and CAPS.
“I think that every single faculty member should add these resources for mental health into their syllabus,” Alrubaye said. “We always assume that students know that these resources are available, but so often they don’t know that there’s somewhere to get help unless you tell them.”
Cline encourages other professors to add student mental-health resources to their syllabi, she said.
“Mental health is everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s opportunity,” Cline said. “We want our whole campus to be involved with identifying distress and then referring students to our resources and services.”
By age 24, 75 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness have begun, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is between eight and 10 years.
Gregory Dumond, an associate professor of geosciences, thinks that an essential aspect of enhancing the experience of students, faculty and staff is opening up the dialogue about mental health. These conversations should be especially inclusive of lowerclassmen to close the gap between onset and intervention, he said.
“Many students have their first onset of depression in college,” Dumond said. “We need to work hard to educate the freshmen and sophomores on mental health so that, if they do happen to experience it, they know what they are feeling instead of thinking that it’s just the normal stress of college life that they should push through.”
Alrubaye thinks that campus officials have done a good job of focusing more on mental health over the last few years, but he would like to see more advertising of student resources, he said. He suggested establishing a mental health awareness day each semester and have students carry signs with information about campus resources for mental health.
“Every single student is precious,” Alrubaye said. “Every single life is important. As professors, we need to understand that these human beings are going through their own struggles, and it’s up to us to help them succeed.”
Though Pat Walker Health Center and CAPS are not able to write excused absences for mental health days, Cline said that Pat Walker health officials are working hard to provide accessible mental health services to students, Cline said.
“I can’t speak for whether or not students should take mental-health days, but I do know that things get in the way, and we need to take care of ourselves,” she said. “The best that we can do at this time is provide access to quality mental-health services and hope that students take advantage of these resources.”
Coleman thinks that mental health is the next frontier in medicine. Until more is known about mental health, he encourages students to prioritize their wellbeing, even if that means temporarily sacrificing some productivity.
“I think that sometimes we get so caught up in what we have to do that we wear ourselves out and end up losing productive work time as a result,” Coleman said. “I believe that sometimes to get the most work done, we should do nothing at all for a little bit.”