I was in fifth grade when I first convinced my mother to let me stay home from school for what I called “a mental health day.” Probably due to her surprise at such a brassy request from an 11-year-old, she consented. She called the school to let them know I wasn’t feeling well and would be staying home. Then, she headed off to work. I spent the rest of that Tuesday like a Saturday, sleeping in, eating half a box of Cheerios, reading “Redwall.” I skipped off to school the next day without complaint.
The mental health day was something I invoked every year or two until I graduated from high school. Come 7 a.m. on the chosen day, I would call my mother into my bedroom like a Hapsburg princess — without rising from my bed, I would announce: “I really need today off.”
Of course, with power comes responsibility: My mom let me do it, so I never abused it. I wasn’t allowed to miss any major assignments or tests. This solid line of credit with my parents went a long way, transforming what was at first utter consternation at the “MHD” into an unspoken agreement. The mental health day itself evolved into my stress-management tool of last resort in the last two years of high school. Like so many of us, I did a lot to get here, and my days started at 6:30 a.m. and often wouldn’t end until 10 p.m. or later, after some permutation of sports practice, working at the library or doing layout for the school newspaper.
In high school, the act of staying home is like finding a paradise lost. The self-imposed slowness of eight unstructured hours in place of a block schedule provided a sharp contrast that allowed me to rest, work and catch up on sleep. Every mental health day I took was an act of radical — but completely necessary — self-care. Weird as it was, naming it the “mental health day,” even in my head, normalized the notion of taking care of my mental self. I definitely think it had broader, positive implications for how I continue to deal with stress today. The two or three MHDs I took in high school allowed me to achieve without burning out.
But what happens once we get to college, when the lines between home and school are blurred? We skip lecture for Master’s Teas all the time, trudge to seminar when we run fevers. Even if you stay home from class, you’re exposed to collective knots of stress at dinnertime, and professors get mad when you’re late to answer emails. It’s hard fully extricate oneself from the tangled web of student jobs, meetings, labs, papers and deadlines, even when a mental health day is sorely needed.
Yale is a place that is always on the go, and while this aspect of our culture challenges us to reach our full potential, the Yale student arms race can be tricky. We will always want to be more productive, more social, more successful — it’s too tempting to push ourselves into cycles of crashing and catching up. Penciling in “MHD” into your moleskin might seem a little weird, but I’ve seen little things slowly weigh me down like a ball and chain when I wear myself too thin, and I forget to acknowledge the value of slowing down every now and then.
Here’s a tip: Stress responds best to an early intervention. Have a guilt-free nap today, and chances are you might not pull that all-nighter later. Find a friend and have a beer. If you’re beat, don’t worry about that problem set for now. Take a day off, and don’t feel bad about it. Trust me, you’ll be better for it tomorrow.
Emily Hong is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .