Mental Health Day: Take One–Take a Month, Even

When Daryl, the therapist protagonist of my novel Minding Therapy, wasn’t up for going to work one particularly bad day, she took “a non-mental health day”—a mental health day, in other words, for someone who works in mental health.

It’s unlikely she was that specific, though, when she called out. (Cough, cough.)

Because one main thing about taking a mental health day (MHD) is that it often induces guilt in employees of all stripes—despite the fact that a MHD is often as needed and as valid as a regular sick day. This Urban Dictionary definition that claims otherwise, for example, reflects a general social stigma: “A quasi-legitimate excuse to take a day off from school or work.” Key words: quasi-legitimate and excuse.

More appropriately, the trusted resource Merriam-Webster defines a mental health day as one “that an employee takes off from work in order to relieve stress or renew vitality.”

Heightened stress and lack of vitality, however, aren’t the only reasons for MHD’s, which can also be useful to those who have a diagnosable mental disorder and are experiencing increased and/or unregulated symptoms. A day or two may do the trick in some cases, but sometimes longer periods may be needed “in order to focus on recovery and restore functioning” (Paul Pendler, Care For Your Mind).

For the longer-term leaves a doctor or therapist’s letter or both will be required by one’s employer. While I’ve handled these requests on occasion myself, some situations are easier than others to assess—especially if the request is coming from a new client. One fears the possibility of inadvertently serving as the oft-sought “Dr. Summeroff” (or “Winteroff”).

Considering a mental health leave yourself? The following guidelines are offered by Pendler. (Although he refers to seeing your “doctor,” feel free to substitute “therapist” if the situation fits. Click on the link for more details.)

1. Understand that having a “diagnosis” does not immediately constitute being “unable to work.” 

2. Be willing to explain to your doctors the specific duties of your job and how, exactly, your condition is preventing you from doing these tasks.

3. Be prepared to work with your doctor to establish a treatment plan, including an estimated return to work date.

4. It is important to maintain as much of a normal schedule of sleep-wake as possible, even while off work.

5.You’ll never be obligated to tell a direct manager about a specific medical condition.

When on medical leave for mental health reasons, points three and four are particularly important. Using one’s time wisely and planning for the eventual return to work will make the transition more doable.

Unfortunately, many employers aren’t into making MHD’s comfortably available, which is neither to their nor their’s staff’s advantage. Robert London, MD, Psychology Today, is one expert who argues that the high absenteeism rate from work for conditions like depression and anxiety could be significantly eased by one decidedly preventive solution: the widespread granting of at least a few MHD’s as a standard employee benefit.

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