Quoted: David Levithan in ‘Will Grayson, Will Grayson’ on ‘Mental Health Days’

i think the idea of a ‘mental health day’ is something completely invented by people who  have no clue what it’s like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying ‘i don’t want to deal with things today’ and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or the other…

One of the eponymous Will Graysons in Will Grayson, Will Grayson says this when he is trying to articulate how he feels about the concept of ‘mental health days.’ You can read my review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson at this ain’t livin’ if you’re interested in seeing more quotes from the book and reading my thoughts on it. (And feel free to discuss it here or there!)

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

13 thoughts on “Quoted: David Levithan in ‘Will Grayson, Will Grayson’ on ‘Mental Health Days’

  1. This reminds me of classmates, friends, my sister, and my roommates not going to class because they’re too tired. Or they’re sore.

    And I usually reply that if I did that, I’d never go to class! In fact, I have stopped attending one class this semester because I was too sore (and too overheated, they turned on the AC with just 4 weeks left, never turning off the heat, way to save money!) and last semester, I stopped attending two classes. Attending as in going, I still did the work.

    A mental health day is out of the question – if I’m stressed because I’m behind, how will missing a class help me? I see mental health days as more of a release valve – we took many when my thyroid problems started, I remember driving out to Moscow to eat at the White House when I was skinny and had a goiter. My little sister got out of school, too and we saw some rural parts.

    I do see a benefit in having sick days for when you’re not mentally or physically ill. There have been a lot of deaths in the small group of people I know – my mom’s brother, my sister’s boss, a friend’s fiance, a student of my mom’s, a husband, on and on. The fiance is the most recent and they don’t know when the friend will be back at work – she needs time to breathe and figure out what to do.

    I guess I see “mental health” days as something for when it’s a temporary issue that’s overwhelming you, not the daily stuff. Just like resting for a week won’t cure my chronic pain, taking a “mental health day” won’t cure my depression.

    It just needs a better name – maybe what it is – an “I need a break day” “me time” – except well, how [redacted per comments policy] is that? We can accept one mental health day, but not a person with a mental illness. And just pulling your kid out of school to go camping the friday after September 11th? No, she must be sick. We don’t build in enough release valves in the working/school world, and it makes me sad, because some of us need them.

  2. On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, as an individual with mental illness, I have absolutely taken mental health days before and called them that, but I think there was a different kind of understanding or meaning to it. When I take a “mental health day” I mean it mostly as a preventative: I recognize that my mental health is in a precarious place and I am taking a day off (of school, usually, which I can manage because I do well enough that missing a day won’t ruin my grades irreparably) in order to keep things from getting worse, or to take a break from the world, or because things are bad enough that I don’t have the energy to hide it. I took one in eighth grade, the day after my breakdown, when I started crying and couldn’t stop for six hours, in the car, in the restaurant, when we got home, when my mom said, “I think you’re depressed,” and I said, “Oh.” I took one a few weeks ago, after my first trazodone after a miserable week of lowest-quality sleep that left me exhausted into depression even though the cymbalta was working, because sleep was more important than class (and I would have been pretty useless anyway).

    So while I recognize the issues of appropriation and privilege that go along with the “mental health day,” and can appreciate what the author, as Will Grayson, is saying, I find value in couching the occasional days I take off as accommodations for my depression and anxiety as “mental health days.” I recognize that part of my ability to take them comes from a place of enormous privilege–I am a white, middle-class college student and I don’t have a “real job” where that won’t fly–but I also wouldn’t be taking them if I weren’t a good enough student to understand the material without going to class, and if I hadn’t grappled sufficiently with what coexisting with mental illness (or the specter of relapse) to have a painfully keen sense of what I need to do in order to maintain balance.

  3. I agree with you, Monica, and I actually got into this a bit more in my review of the book at this ain’t livin’:

    I would note that people with mental illnesses can also benefit from days in which they don’t deal with things for a day and take some time out for themselves, though ‘mental health day’ is not quite the phrase I would use to describe such a day, personally.

    I think what Will Grayson is speaking to here is the appropriation of the phrase by people who don’t have mental illnesses, when they talk about wanting a day off because they are tired or don’t feel like working/schooling or whatever. And it sometimes gets used in the sense of ‘well just take a day off and you will feel better.’ In fact, as we know, taking days off can make us ‘feel better,’ but it doesn’t magically cure us either. Both of these senses of the word tend to dilute it, making it harder for people who need days like this to articulate their needs; when you say ‘I need to take a mental health day,’ people around you might read that as ‘I just don’t feel like doing stuff today’ instead of ‘I need to protect myself.’

    I should note, of course, that while I personally don’t refer to the days I take to protect my mental health as ‘mental health days’ it certainly doesn’t mean that other people with mental illness can’t or shouldn’t!

  4. I see the problems here, and like Kaitlyn I also get a bit frustrated when people take time off for X when my base level is 10X (then again, there are probably people with 100X who get frustrated with me). But I don’t consider mental (ill) health to equate to mental illness in a diagnosable sense. You don’t need to have, or even be at imminent risk of having, a physical illness to take care of your physical health and fitness, and it’s really problematic that most workplaces are not set up to handle “actually, I’ll be more productive overall if I can be a bit flexible with my hours this week”.

    From a personal – and not universally applicable – perspective “mental health days” are only helpful when things are okay. When there are baseline head things going on that are in danger of flaring up, but are manageable. When things are bad I won’t touch them, won’t even consider getting into work 15 minutes late (even though my boss is pretty flexible on such things) because I know that if I give myself any flexibility it will just escalate and I’ll never get there again.

  5. I feel like just like temporarily able-bodied people have physical health that they have to take care of – sometimes with time off work – so do non-mentally ill people have mental health that they have to take care of – sometimes with time off work. It’s a problem that people assume that that could cure mental illness just like it’s a problem that people assume exercise can cure a physical disability. But it doesn’t mean either exercise or a mental health day concept is appropriative in and of itself – they’re just things beneficial to some people and not to others. We shouldn’t assume that a given person will or won’t need one at a given time.

    Similarly, I think I’m a bit bothered by the implication I’m seeing that because someone with a mental illness can go to class or work on a given day, someone who’s not mentally ill should be able to handle it. The fact of the matter is, individuals who do not deal with an actual mental illness still can and do feel and experience really terrible days and I don’t think it’s helpful to minimize that just because it’s not chronic or isn’t diagnosible.

  6. This “mental health day” is a bit like one of those elusive “duvet days” that big companies in the cities offer to employees but businesses in small working class towns and the like have never heard of? Or it is a US concept? Because I can honestly say I’ve never worked for a company that has offered mental health days. And as someone with a mental illness I love the idea that I could be honest about why I was taking a day off sick rather than have to make up something about having a stomach upset or a bad cold.

    And I can see your point, to an extent, that it feels – appropriative? – for people who are “just” having a “bad day” to take it off (although at the same time, I wonder how many of those people with recurring “bad days” actually have undiagnosed depression; I know mine took a long time to be diagnosed) under the guise of mental health. But on the flip side, any company that actually recognises that mental health is important enough to be allowed sick days to look after it is at least better than a company where you are too scared to talk about the real reason you need to call in sick sometimes.

  7. I find myself agreeing with everyone here in different doses. I especially relate to Kaitlyn’s point about how our education and work cultures and systems lack release valves which are vital for many people.

    And what I hear from people in traditional office set-ups is that everyone in an office feels like another group’s needs are privileged over their own. People without children can feel that parents get an unfair degree of leeway if they have to care for a sick child or pick a kid up from school in an emergency, and feel frustrated at having to pick up the slack without getting similar leeway for their needs, which may be different but equally vital to them. Whereas parents will say, ‘Wait a minute, I get nothing but grief for the times when I have to take my kid to the doctor/care for him while he has the flu/whatever’.

    Now, I’m cynical, and see see a divide-and-rule thing going on: it’s far, far easier for managements to play workers from different demographics off against each other than it is for workers to band together and demand fair treatment, reasonable time off for emergencies (and you can define that however it applies to you) and pressing ongoing home needs (e.g. people who care for a sick or elderly person at home or have a child) or health needs. It still amazes me how few workplaces offer flexitime or home-working when there are so many people for whom either would be an absolute blessing. But workers are typically in a position of disadvantage when it comes to advocating for such changes…

    I feel like I should state where I’m coming from: I have a chronic illness that means freelancing from home is my only working option, and my partner has a chronic health problem which can be dormant for ages but then flare up. If our healthcare system was able to prioritise his treatment than it wouldn’t have much effect on his work, but it can’t, and his employers have hinted that if he has many more occasions of sickness (he’s taken very little time off, but spread over several occasions, and that’s what they count for some reason) it could become a disciplinary issue. A halfway humane approach to workers’ needs beyond the company would mean this would never happen.

  8. Lots of great discussion going on here! I should clarify, since I don’t think I made it clear in my earlier comment, that I don’t think taking a day to protect mental health is something which is limited to people with mental illnesses, and as anthea points out, not everyone with a mental illness benefits from a mental health day. When I think about appropriative uses of this term, I think about people who just don’t feel like working on a given day[1], which is…not quite the same thing.

    I totally agree with the many commenters who have discussed the fact that schools and workplaces have very little respect or consideration for mental health issues; I can think of very few workplaces, for example, which would actually allow employees to ‘take a mental health day.’ Any worker who advocated for such a thing would be viewed as suspect and would probably be subject to discrimination in the future. There is also, of course, a general failure to balance the needs of workers with physical disabilities and workers with children which in addition to being horrid for the people experiencing discrimination is ultimately bad for the corporate world because it excludes some very talented people from the workplace.

    What would be really lovely in my opinion was the policy we used to have at one of my old workplaces, where people who wanted to take days off (for whatever reason) simply said ‘I would like to take a day off.’ We were not obliged to explain, we could just do it, and that made such a huge difference to me. I didn’t feel like I had to drag myself into work when I really was not in a condition to work, and I didn’t feel shamed for needing to take days off. This policy also made room for people who just felt like taking a day off once in a while! (Which is, incidentally, something I totally support, I just don’t feel entirely comfortable with it being referred to as a ‘mental health day’ if it’s not.) We got a set number of paid days off each year which increased the more we worked for the company, so we also were not penalised for taking days off, another critical aspect of leave policies which often gets left out.

    1. Obviously when you are in need of some protective time for yourself, you also ‘don’t feel like working,’ but in a very different way.

  9. Katie – “Similarly, I think I’m a bit bothered by the implication I’m seeing that because someone with a mental illness can go to class or work on a given day, someone who’s not mentally ill should be able to handle it. The fact of the matter is, individuals who do not deal with an actual mental illness still can and do feel and experience really terrible days and I don’t think it’s helpful to minimize that just because it’s not chronic or isn’t diagnosible.”

    Yeah, I came off a bit harsh. I just get texts in the morning or see FB messages in the afternoon “didn’t go to class, bed was calling” and I struggled to walk without screaming and my empathy goes away.

    You make a great point, and my friend recently told me she has a life long illness, yadda yadda yadda. She said, “I know it’s not as bad as yours.” My immediate reply was “don’t say that, don’t you DARE say that, your problems are bad for you, they have no effect on mine.” Because that is one slippery slope of guilt. (That I often start thinking about… well, it’s not that bad because of X.)

    But it’s hard when people who don’t have a chronic illness get fussed over if they’re lucky enough to afford a day or two off, while PWD are looked at in annoyance. “You’re STILL sick?”

  10. In my experience, sometimes people who say they are taking “a mental health day” do have mental health issues – but it’s a lot safer to say “I had to take a mental health day” than it is to talk about one’s ongoing depression or what-have-you.

  11. I… really didn’t like the quote. I feel like I’m supposed to like it, and supposed to find it really nice to see a character who (perhaps, having not read the book) thinks like me “telling it like it is” about people who don’t have constant depression, but he just comes across as really arrogant and judgmental.
    On some days the thought of getting dressed or even getting out of bed is too much because “oh fuck I haven’t done anything of worth this week I’m a horrible person maybe if I stay here I can die in my sleep, and not have to wake up” and while I think that many of the commenters here are being fairly nuanced in their discussion of this all (though admittedly I only skimmed, since I was planning on commenting on the quote itself), the quote itself is not.
    As a person with a mental illness/depression, I feel like the quote is pretty solidly saying: “this thing you do sometimes, (that yeah, isn’t effective at stopping me from being depressed because it’s everyday, but is in fact very linked with being depressed and more or less able to handle my self/life), that is a FAKEY McFakerson’s way of being depressed. Only people who have no clue would act like that.” I mean, that is unless I’m just missing some awesome nuance here, like that (generally) I don’t call them “mental health” days because I feel like I’d get told to come into work, which honestly doesn’t seem that nuancey, because if I COULD say “I’m taking a mental health day” and not be worried, I think I probably would. I already spend so much of my time feeling guilty/anxious about applying the label of “mentally ill/depressed” to myself, that this message just hits me too close for comfort.

    Does that make sense?

  12. Yeah, I don’t like that quote at all. I don’t think “mental health” is something only people with a diagnosable/chronic/debilitating mental illness should be concerned about.

    For me, taking a day off doesn’t usually help…I can just get stuck in a rut of avoidance and get worse, even if going would be painful too. But if one of my friends who doesn’t have a mental illness is really stressed out for whatever reason, and taking a day off CAN help them, I certainly don’t want them to not do it just because it wouldn’t be enough to help ME. It’s not about me. (And it IS a day for their mental health. So why shouldn’t they call it a mental health day if they want to?) Plus, I think a lot of people say they’re being lazy because they’d rather say that than that they’re having a bad time, mentally ill or not.

    I think I’m lucky to have friends who realize that, even if I have to take drugs and have a way harder time with some things that they do, a lot of our struggles are, in a way, not fundamentally different. And I bet it would be really annoying for them to be around someone who acted like their problems weren’t worth accommodating just because other people’s are “worse.”

  13. Also, I just thought of this–I spent years getting sicker because I didn’t believe I was sick enough to deserve to complain. I would have read a quote like that and felt really guilty, because I was telling myself I was “just lazy,” not like those REALLY sick people, instead of, um, bipolar. I think coming across attitudes like the one in that quote were harmful to me.

    Though I do understand being alienated by the other side, that is, the way that some people, because they can get better with something small like that, think everything else should be able to too. But at least people who talk about mental health days might be more likely to treat mental health as a serious concern–plenty of people don’t.

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