Rates of depression and anxiety are shockingly high across all levels of academia. According to the American Psychological Association, 1 in 3 college freshmen suffers from a mental illness that affects their scholastic performance, with major depression and anxiety being the most common of these.
But it’s reasonable to doubt those findings. Finding someone who didn’t have some degree of difficulty adjusting from high school to college would be a tremendously difficult endeavor, and the scientific evidence clearly shows minimal improvement over time, most notably among graduate students. A 2018 Harvard University study of doctoral students showed that 11 percent had considered suicide in the last two weeks. At every level, America’s college students are deeply ill.
There is little conclusive data showing the number of people with diagnosed mental illnesses at the UofA, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of action on the university’s part. The UofA does offer counseling services to its students, although the university only provides short-term counseling.
The UofA also offers drop-in counseling through its casual Let's Talk program. While those who use these programs surely benefit from them, there’s a simple and inexpensive option that the UofA could use to improve the mental health of its students: a day off to manage mental illness.
Mental-health days have accrued a mild degree of recognition in popular culture, though it can be difficult to define exactly what they entail. In their broadest classification, they are personal days that are redeemable for reasons outside of purely physical illnesses. For the purposes of this piece, a mental-health day refers to a day of missed classes that is indispensable to the management of a student’s mental wellbeing.
“Spoon theory” is a common metaphor in chronic illness circles. Essentially, the theory purports that those afflicted with chronic or debilitating illnesses have a limited amount of emotional and physical energy for day-to-day tasks. This energy is measured by an individual’s spoons for the day.
Depression and anxiety, the most common mental illnesses college students face, fall comfortably into this analogy. Difficulties in addressing day-to-day issues are definitive symptoms in both of these illnesses, with depression bringing a deep apathy and lack of energy, and anxiety bringing debilitating fits of preoccupation and panic.
The struggle to balance academic, personal and social commitments can be exhausting and overwhelming. Students with depression or anxiety, and therefore a clinical shortage of spoons, are at a unique disadvantage.
This is where a brief respite from academic stress becomes useful, and for many students, a university-sanctioned mental-health day could represent such a moment of relief from academic requirement.
Obviously, some might be wary that such a system could be abused once implemented. Lazy students could very well use a mental-health day system to neglect class attendance requirements or to circumvent important deadlines. Thankfully, the UofA has the infrastructure to prevent this. The UofA, and universities in general, should treat a student that has to miss class or a deadline because of mental illness should the same way as a student missing those requirements because of a physical illness; a note verified by a mental-health professional should be provided. Though requiring this kind of documentation is currently prohibited by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, modifications would be necessary in order to implement a standard mental-health day.
Mental illnesses can be as debilitating as any physical illness, and they deserve the same respect and empathy. A day off could have long-lasting impacts on a student’s success, while also compelling students to seek out mental-health services. Relentless pressure can cause long-lasting damage, and rest may be the key to abiding academic success.