Will Mandated Mental-Health Breaks Do More Harm Than Good?
New policies presume it’s beneficial for anxious students to take days off from class. That assumption has several critical flaws.
One recent day as an arctic blast hit New England, I was at a campus meeting discussing how best to spend a grant some professors had received for educational development in STEM fields. To help the investigators decide, the head of our faculty-excellence center, Jennifer Herman, posed a question: “What is the No. 1 pedagogical challenge you are encountering right now in your own classrooms?”Their answer, almost to a person: the number and frequency of students requesting mental-health breaks to exempt them from attending class.
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One recent day as an arctic blast hit New England, I was at a campus meeting discussing how best to spend a grant some professors had received for educational development in STEM fields. To help the investigators decide, the head of our faculty-excellence center, Jennifer Herman, posed a question: “What is the No. 1 pedagogical challenge you are encountering right now in your own classrooms?” Their answer, almost to a person: the number and frequency of students requesting mental-health breaks to exempt them from attending class.
Avoidance of one’s fears leads to an ever-tightening spiral of dread.
Compassion for distressed students often prompted the professors to grant such requests. But they were finding that these same students — most of whom were already having trouble in the course — only fell further behind following a mental-health break. Amplified across many students, it was becoming difficult to keep the entire class on track, the faculty members said. All too often lately, they were teaching to half-empty rooms and felt at a loss for what to do about it. They saw the breaks doing more harm than good but didn’t want to pull back for fear of making the wrong choice for student mental health.
A recent news story in The Chronicle underscored just how much of a national trend that requests for mental-health breaks have become. Students want their college to systematize these breaks, which are sometimes called “wellness days.” But they also want their college to require faculty members to provide accommodations for any student who misses class for a mental-health break — meaning that faculty members would grant deadline extensions or exemptions from any work done in class that day. At Northeastern University, for example, students are advocating for campus policies that require instructors to provide class notes and deadline extensions when they use a wellness day.
If a student is having an active panic attack or a surge in an episode of major depressive disorder, it may be nigh impossible for them to attend class. Obviously in such cases, good mental health is best served by stepping away from the daily grind for a spell, for rest and rejuvenation. And certainly, when a college cancels classes for a day and replaces them with joyful, celebratory activities, that sends the right message — that, while the work we do here is important, it’s not dire. We can all use a collective moment to breathe and play.
But I see two major weaknesses with broad policies that insist instructors accommodate multiple mental-health breaks for every student who asks:
- First, requiring faculty members to change how they conduct class and pivot constantly during a semester would clearly amplify faculty workload and burnout.
- Second, these policies presume it’s beneficial for students who feel anxious about attending class or stressed about their workload to regularly take days off from class. That assumption has several critical flaws.
What We Know: Avoidance Maintains and Exacerbates Anxiety
We don’t know much for sure in psychology, but one thing is certain: The absolute worst way to ameliorate anxiety is to avoid your fears, to withdraw from the source of anxiety. Avoidance of one’s fears leads to an ever-tightening spiral of dread. “Tension and turmoil, we find, are strange creatures,” said Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist, in her 2019 book, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. “When we shrink from pressure and fear, they just take on new, harrowing proportions.”
Avoidance of something you fear reinforces that fear twofold: First, you reward the fear by doing something more enjoyable instead. Both the replacement activity and the removal of the anxiety make it more likely that you’ll avoid similar circumstances when they next arise. Second, in avoiding something that makes you anxious, you deprive yourself of the possibility of extinguishing that fear, because you’ll never have the experience of being in that situation safely. You may even begin to assume that you were correct to avoid it, because the avoidance kept you safe.
Avoidance is so rewarding that it can lead predisposed individuals to withdraw from a widening circle of activities, sometimes even culminating in agoraphobia, or the removal of oneself nearly entirely from functioning society. While most college students are not suffering from agoraphobia, many of them are experiencing a milder version of activity restriction.
A Common Warning Sign: Students Not Leaving Their Dorm Rooms
As a frequent speaker on college campuses and at an age where I have many friends whose kids are off to college for the first time, I can tell you that many institutions are offering programs to combat a growing problem on residential campuses — students hunkering down in their dorms and not leaving except for food (unless they order takeout) and class (sometimes).
Student-affairs offices organize events specifically aimed at luring students out of their rooms. In fact, infrequently leaving their dorm is a common warning sign of mental-health trouble. In a recent interview project on the undergraduate experience, our research team frequently heard students themselves say that, in their first year of college, they had only left their room to go to class and had spent the rest of their time eating alone in the dorm by the light of their phone.
Of course there have always been students who lurk rather than mingle during those scary first months of residential college. But the stresses of pandemic life in recent years and the growing appeal of phones, video games, online communities, and digital learning (on many campuses, you can still Zoom in to class even if the campus is generally face to face) has clearly amplified the temptation to stay in the comfort of four walls.
For students who want to avoid social interactions in class and be exempt from the work involved, those four walls may grow ever more appealing — but also close in on our young people over time.
Research demonstrates that the most common trajectory for emotional symptoms in young adulthood is the onset of anxiety, leading to withdrawal and avoidance, and culminating in depression. Youths become isolated from peers and cut off from situations where they can feel effective. A key predictor that adolescent anxiety could transition to depression may be making more hopeless interpretations about one’s anxiety, assuming that it is fixed, unchangeable, and requires accommodation rather than confrontation. On the flipside, encouraging a growth mind-set about anxiety is a powerful therapeutic tool.
In short, campus policies that offer mental-health breaks from class aim to solve one problem (student anxiety and stress) but often end up exacerbating another (student avoidance of social interaction, which tends to amplify anxiety).
The Importance of Learning to Tolerate Negative Emotions
One of the essential elements of nearly all treatments for psychological distress is reducing intolerance of negative emotions and uncertainty — learning to not just tolerate negative emotions, but even embrace them. And therein lies another reason why these campus policies risk doing more harm than good. They promote the idea that negative emotions are always a signal to withdraw.
They institutionalize the idea that students should routinely expect negative emotions to disrupt their daily lives. That they should expect to be incapacitated when they feel anxiety about class participation, tests, deadlines, or basic social interactions, instead of seeing the friction and discomfort of those experiences as just part of the human condition.
Lucy Foulkes, a psychologist and author of What Mental Illness Really Is (and what it isn’t), warned in a 2021 essay that, while reducing the stigma of talking about mental-health problems is a laudable development, we risk creating other problems when we send the message that everyone should constantly notice, evaluate, and seek treatment for any negative emotions or other signs of psychological distress. “The message misfires,” she wrote, “when it implies that all negative states are problems, health problems — and things that can and should be fixed. That’s not how life works.” Indeed, negative emotions like frustration, confusion, and uncertainty are key to the process of learning.
Moreover, the core of almost all major psychological therapies involves learning to engage with negative emotions, not avoid them:
- Mindfulness therapy teaches us to sidle up to negative emotions (much like you might row a boat alongside a wave to more gently crest its heights) and to be curious about what they might teach us.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy asks us to tackle head-on the catastrophizing nature of our automatic thoughts (“I can’t go to class today; I will have a mental breakdown”) with reframing (“Might I feel terrible during class? Yes. Is it possible I’ll need to excuse myself? Possibly. Will the world end if I do? No.”).
Another problem with encouraging students to disengage when they are feeling negative emotions is that, very often, those emotions are elicited because of a problem that needs solving. This is, after all, why we evolved to have negative emotions. They signal that something has gone awry and needs to be resolved: Fear signals the presence of a threat, disgust that we should recoil from a potential contaminant, anger that there is a wrong that needs to be righted.
Students are most likely to feel they might need a mental-health break when they are struggling academically — but, with or without instructor accommodations, taking time off from class will likely exacerbate rather than solve the problem. For example, a friend of mine has a student in college who was in danger of low grades in most of their classes. They were on a campus with a term system in which each course lasts a mere six or seven weeks, so a lot gets covered in a short period of time. The student was so distressed by the news that they took several days off from any schoolwork as a mental-health break. Doing so worsened rather than solved the problem.
Rather than encouraging students to read their negative emotions as signals to withdraw, we should be helping them to challenge their own catastrophic thinking and engage in problem-solving.
Interventions That Hold More Promise Than Mental-Health Breaks
Instead of one-size-fits-all mental-health policies that draw a connection between negative emotions and withdrawal, institutions and their students would be better off putting their time and support behind “active intervention” strategies to improve mental health. Among the options:
- Goal-setting interventions. Goal setting is an underutilized but extremely powerful tool for behavioral change, and a large body of work demonstrates its effectiveness for academic outcomes. In one of my favorite such studies, a goal-setting activity helped students on academic probation achieve higher GPAs and drop fewer credits — and also reduced their negative emotions.
- Vocational programs (especially teamed with mentorship). So much of college can feel like busywork, and pointing yourself at a lucrative career that doesn’t fulfill you is unlikely to result in well-being. Vocational programs can help students identify a sense of purpose and meaning in their studies.
- Community-based engagement. A rich literature suggests that giving back not just to the world but to the specific communities to which you belong can shore up positive emotions and well-being. Uniting education and community service could achieve learning outcomes while also supporting youth mental health.
- Grading reform. Traditional grading systems can be both demotivating and inequitable. An array of major reforms offer alternatives that refocus students on learning and developing competency rather than checking boxes or competing with one another.
- Workshops on sleep hygiene. Done well, such workshops might be particularly effective, as there is a clear relationship between sleep quality and mental health in college students. And better sleep habits may do more than just improve student mental health. One research study asked students in a chemistry course to wear fitness-tracker-like wristbands and found that sleep quality predicted nearly a quarter of the variance in their end-of-semester grades. In other words, you could predict a student’s grade with about a third more accuracy if you knew how well they were sleeping. Unsurprisingly, better sleep predicted better grades.
Institutions should also invest in faculty development and student-centered pedagogical techniques. One of the most powerful things we can do to encourage students to engage, rather than withdraw, is to design learning environments that support mental health. We need to create classrooms that draw students in, that are deeply motivating — so that it feels to them like the best thing for their mental health would be to attend class rather than stay home.
The best such classrooms are those that marry compassion and challenge, that create a learning environment of psychological safety and belongingness so that students feel secure enough to embrace complexity and vulnerability, to thrive in community with fellow students, to take risks before the potentially baleful light of their peers’ attention, and to emerge from those experiences stronger and more confident.
How? By encouraging faculty members to build some freedom, flexibility, and choice into their syllabus and course structure. Instead of a draconian attendance policy, allow students to skip a limited number of in-class assignments or to drop their lowest quiz grade. Experiment with alternative forms of assessment and grading.
Putting pedagogies of kindness into practice can create the release of pressure that mental-health breaks intend. Most critically, these techniques offer students a sense of autonomy and competence rather than encouraging them to withdraw. It may seem like a subtle difference — breaks mandated by the institution to escape negative emotions versus structures created to give students greater autonomy over their coursework — but it is a powerful one.
And leaving these course-design decisions up to individual faculty members means that the authority over class structure and policies remains where it belongs: in the hands of the instructor.
Ultimately, normalizing frequent mental-health breaks from life’s responsibilities across all students is not consistent with psychological knowledge about what is best for mental health. It encourages avoidance and intolerance of negative emotions, and places further burdens on an already overtaxed faculty.
We can do better. Rather than encourage students to withdraw from everyday levels of stress and anxiety, we should be inspiring them to engage.