The hectic rush of college life and the process of learning to balance everything yourself is taxing on student mental health. It often seems impossible to find space to prioritize yourself and take time to rest. Especially this past year, it has been particularly difficult to find a break between the condensed semesters, ObieSafe emails containing dismaying news about COVID-19, and the difficulties that come with remote courses. But the problem extends beyond the lack of vacation days, as we will soon resume a semester schedule with regular breaks. This is about the lack of support that students have in taking a random day off when they just need a break — a mental health day. Many students have those days when we can’t get out of bed or can’t bring ourselves to work on a paper. What kind of support does Oberlin have for us in those moments?
College third-year Miranda Harris, the disability equity and mental health liaison on Student Senate, has been helping students transition back to campus and create supportive spaces.
“I’ve been thinking about how devastating this past year and a half has been for people and how we can make coming back to campus something that people feel safe and comfortable doing,” she said. Senate is working on organizing panels and community spaces, seeking to create an environment where students can feel comfortable taking mental health days when they need.
Speaking out about your need for a day off is challenging, especially in college. Our schedules are almost all up to ourselves. We have so much unstructured time, and we each craft our own days from start-to-finish. It takes a lot of initiative to schedule a day for yourself, especially when you have a pile of work to get done. Even though a mental health day will help in the long run, it is hard to see that clearly when you are under immense stress from school, in addition to other life stressors.
The stigma around mental health days makes it even harder to take them. If you skip class one day, you’re a slacker. If you need an extra day to work on an assignment, you’re a procrastinator. You don’t want to get out of bed and walk across campus to an early class one day? You’re lazy. None of these sentiments are true, but it feels like others will view us this way. How can we, at Oberlin, help students feel comfortable enough and confident enough to take a mental health day when they need it?
One way to facilitate a space where students can comfortably prioritize themselves is to work directly with professors. Senate has working groups for these initiatives and has maintained close contact with many professors. One thing senators are fighting for is “universal design” — encouraging professors to set up coursework and class policies with enough flexibility to accommodate student mental health needs. Not every student can succeed in a traditional course schedule, which is often rigid.
“It is important for professors to structure their courses in order to allow for student mental health [accommodations],” Harris said.
If students felt more comfortable approaching their professors when they need help, it would undoubtedly improve student mental health. Once some professors begin structuring their classes in a flexible way, the progress will be exponential. Faculty would be able to share ideas and what techniques have been successful, and push each other to create space for students’ mental health needs.
Student mental health is not just about a normal semester schedule that has regular fall and spring breaks — although that helps. Knowing that professors care about our mental state and needs can alleviate stress around taking a much-needed rest. Ultimately, it is up to us to advocate for ourselves and de-stigmatize mental health days. You are not slacking when you take a day off; you can still succeed and actually do better once recharged. We all need mental health days, and they will only be normalized if we keep standing up for our individual needs and taking mental health days when we need them.