One of the most helpful things a therapist has ever told me is that mental illness shouldn’t be treated any differently than physical illness—specifically when it comes to shame. You wouldn’t beat yourself up for having strep throat, she explained, so why should you look down on yourself for struggling with depression or anxiety or an eating disorder? (You got me, Jane.)
If that logic tracks, then folks who are struggling mentally should consider taking a mental health day off of work, just as they’d take a sick day, say the experts. Dr. Meghan Marcum, Chief Psychologist for AMFM Healthcare, a mental and behavioral health treatment center in California, tells me, “Mental health days are important because our mind and psychological well-being are essential to physical health and overall wellness.” (Note that you don’t need to have a diagnosed mental illness to be struggling mentally; mental health days are for everyone.)
When we neglect our mental health needs, she explains, it can have direct and severe consequences. “When we prioritize our mental health and take a day off to recharge, it can improve our immune function, increase energy levels and boost our mood. The world is a busy, stressful place, so it makes sense to acknowledge the significance of our mental health.”
Still, when I’ve considered taking mental health days in the past, I’ve often gotten in my own head and convinced myself that I’m being silly or overly dramatic. Not so, says Dr. Marcum. “Sometimes people may feel guilty or as if taking time off work for mental health is a sign of weakness. This type of thinking perpetuates mental health stigma. If you could benefit from a day to improve your mental health and de-stress, go for it.”
Of course, certain jobs are more conducive to mental health days than others, and it's definitely a privilege to be in a position to request a day off to take care of your mental health. Still, if you are able to do so, be as direct as you feel comfortable being and let your manager know that you'd really appreciate a day to regroup and recenter. We're willing to be they'll respect your honesty and vulnerability and recognize that happy and healthy employees are productive employees. It's a win-win, really. If your job doesn't allow for mental health days, try to devote some of your time post-work to getting into a better headspace with some of the suggestions below.
As for how you should spend your day, Dr. Marcum suggests scheduling activities that support your mental health. “For example, take a hike, get a massage, take a scenic drive with a friend or do any other activity that makes you feel good.” In terms of things you shouldn’t do, Dr. Marcum advises avoiding social media, work emails, and stressful conversations. “Enjoy the entire day, not just a small portion of the time you took off from work.”
Remember: There’s no shame in tending to your mental health as you would your physical body.