I am proposing that Merrimack College institute a “Mental Health Day ” policy for students. The main reason I am proposing the “Mental Health Day” policy is to allow students to recognize that Merrimack College is aware and supports mental health equally as physical health. According to Merrimack College’s “Healthy Minds Study” from 2019-2020, 36% of the students at Merrimack have a lifetime diagnosis of mental illness. Those mental illnesses range from depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Yet the Merrimack community is not alone, as stated on collegestats.org, 44% of American college students suffer from depression, 80% of students feel anxiety on a daily basis, and 25% of college students have eating disorders.
Depression and anxiety are two things that I have experienced on and off for as long as I could remember. I was never certain what those feelings were until they became more constant when starting college. Throughout my freshman year I tried to fight those feelings, as I was ashamed to be feeling that way and to share with others, even my close friends. I would secretly go to Hamel Health to meet with a counselor because I was ashamed of my mental health. After seeing my doctor and getting my diagnosis, I realized it is nothing to be ashamed of and I wish everyone else felt the same way. That is why I am writing this proposal, not to change the attendance policy, but to push for professors to incorporate mental health days into their own attendance policy.
As I feel comfortable and confident to share my story, my concern is that some may not be able to. In past semesters, I found myself having to share my mental health troubles with a professor because of the effect it had on my academics. About 15 minutes before leaving for class one day I began to have an anxiety attack, yet I knew I was limited to a certain amount of absences and it was still early in the semester so I did not want to miss class. I went to class hoping I would be better by the time I got there. As class started I was unable to hold myself together, and I went to the bathroom to try to calm down. I returned to class and realized being in the classroom setting was not best for me during my anxiety attack. I made the decision to leave class, then later saw I got a zero for attendance that day. Fortunately, I was comfortable enough to approach my professor and explain why I needed to leave class. My professor automatically changed my attendance grade because I did have the intentions of going to class. My fear is that other people do not feel comfortable sharing, and I believe an individual’s grade should not be penalized because of their mental health status.
According to the Merrimack College website, “It is the responsibility of the professor(s) to notify students in writing of their specific attendance policies in their course syllabus, and to place such statements on file with the Office of the Dean”. As many of my peers and I have discussed, most professors provide a certain amount of days which you are allowed to be absent before the absences begin to affect your grade. There are always exceptions such as death or illness, yet the types of illnesses are never discussed in detail. That is why I feel that not only an individual’s physical health, but also one’s mental health should be taken into consideration.
The more I began to do research on this topic, I realized how the symptoms of different mental illnesses can easily affect a student’s academics. Some symptoms are strong feelings of irritability or anger, excessive worrying, problems with concentrating, changes in sleep schedules, changes in appetite, and most importantly inability to carry out daily activities. Sometimes all people need are a day, a day to be able to collect and relax without a lot of stress. According to a 2018 survey by the American College Health Association, anxiety and depression are the biggest factors that negatively impact student academic performance.
It is apparent to me that some students may abuse this policy if adopted, yet I do not believe it will be much more abused than the current attendance policy. Even though not everyone has to worry about a mental illness, everyone has to worry about their mental health. Having a policy that supports students’ ability to take days off when needed, can help encourage students to take care of themselves. If put into action, the policy will assist Merrimack College in destigmatizing mental health. If not only professors, but also the school begins to establish Mental Health Days into their attendance policy, it is hoped that more students will be less ashamed or afraid to speak up about their mental health. Schools have begun to institute these kinds of policies with success. For example, in school districts in Oregon and Utah, mental health days are just as excusable as the flu, stomach ache, cold, etc. According to Edutopia, Debbie Plotnick, a vice president at Mental Health America, shared “The first step to confront this crisis is to reduce the stigma around it. We need to say it’s just as OK to take care for mental health reasons as it is to care for a broken bone or physical illness.” This statement cannot be more true, especially for a college student. Just like a broken bone cannot heal instantly, mental illnesses can take a lifetime to overcome or deal with and should always be taken seriously. A mental illness can affect your daily life just the same as a physical illness, but while mental illnesses are hard to recognize they are even harder to understand.
Additionally in The Washington Post, as a high school senior in Oregon, Derek Evans stated “The system appears not to support our students but to force them into classes when they are far from healthy”. The lack of support leaves some students feeling lost and uncomfortable. By approaching academics with a supportive mentality from the school, this could promote students to start discussing their mental health with family, friends, or professionals. Therefore I find it would be extremely beneficial for Merrimack College to start promoting “mental health days” within school-wide attendance policies. This would allow students to be more comfortable with their mental health issues and begin to overcome the stigma of mental illnesses. Hopefully if this attendance policy is taken into consideration and put into action, the Merrimack community will see a change for the better and maybe even start to influence other school districts and colleges surrounding us.
Sources for further reading:
Students Can Now Miss School for a ‘Mental Health Day’
Professors should include mental health days in accepted absences
Schools now letting students stay home sick for mental-health days.