Redefining mental health days

A holistic approach to student well-being beyond the classroom

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JMU faculty are prioritizing students’ wellness through various options for mental health days and wellness activities. ILLUSTRATION BY DUSAN STANKOVIC/GETTY IMAGES

SUMMARY: Taking a mental health day is something that everyone has considered doing at least once in their academic or professional career. But to take full advantage of them, you need to understand the true meaning behind them.

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Mental health days mean something different to everyone who partakes, but in a broad sense they are a period of time away from life’s stressors to focus on one’s mental health.

But not everyone feels like they’re allowed to take a break. Some JMU professors are trying to change that narrative by implementing mental health days and other wellness practices into their course schedules.

Kinesiology instructor Chelsea Duncan is one of them. “I offer one mental health makeup day each semester,” she said. “I understand that sometimes you’re not physically sick, but you just need a day for whatever reason.” 

Duncan says a common misconception around mental health days is that lying in bed all day will simply reset you. “In most cases, this is not true. If you really want to improve your mental health, you have to actively work on it.”

Because of this, she requires students to complete a wellness activity and reflection when they take advantage of this opportunity. “I completely understand needing a break, but if a student is in need of a boost to their wellness, I’m going to challenge them to do just that,” Duncan said.

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(L-R): Karla Kale, psychoeducation outreach specialist at the JMU Counseling Center, and Chelsea Duncan, kinesiology instructor

Duncan’s efforts don’t stop there; she also tries to integrate wellness practices within the classroom. This might include time for mindfulness or days dedicated to pivot activities, like campus scavenger hunts, when she notices stress levels getting high among students.

“My overall goal for mental health within the course is to teach the students how to work on it,” Duncan said. “Give them opportunities and resources to try and encourage them to fully immerse themselves in some practices to find what works for them, so they can take those tools with them as they grow.”

Fourth-year student Brendan Miller views mental health days as an opportunity to recharge. “I like to clean my room, organize my school stuff and maybe work out. But I don’t want to do assignments on a day off.”

Miller doesn’t often have mental health days built into the calendar, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t offered. “Sometimes my professors will cancel class or make class optional for a day. If I know a day like that is coming, I will plan to have my work done so that I can have a break from class or I can head home from campus for a while.”

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Exercise and getting outdoors can help with mental health and offer a way for students to rest and relax from their studies. PHOTOGRAPH BY OLIVE SANTOS (’20)

If there isn’t enough time to leave campus though, Miller knows of spaces where he can rest and rejuvenate. He visits the University Recreation Center often and has used its Wellness Center services on his days off.

Karla Kale, a psychoeducation outreach specialist at the JMU Counseling Center, shared an important clarification on what a mental health day really means. “If a mental health day is truly going to be a time to rest and relax and recharge, so that you’re ready to tackle the work that needs to get done tomorrow, then that might be a much-needed day,” they said. “However, if a mental health day is spent dreading tomorrow and all the things that still need to be done, then it is unlikely to help.” 


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by Jane McConville and Lilly Johns

Published: Friday, February 23, 2024

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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