When I first heard about people taking time off from school/work for mental health reasons, I never quite understood what “mental health leave” would entail. When we are physically ill (with a cold, the flu, etc.) we get a doctor’s note and stay home for a prescribed amount of time (a week or so), we sleep, we lie in bed, drink soup, take medicine, but what did it mean to take mental health leave? And what would that do?
For the first time ever, I recently took a week off of school for mental health reasons. I’m sitting now, back at school, in my faculty building facing the huge glass windows. But two weeks ago at this time, I was at home, probably still sleeping.
From my time off I learned a lot about myself, the people around me, our society, and more. Here are some of the things I learned.
1. It is 100% valid to take a mental health leave.
I didn’t want to take a mental health leave. “I can’t,” I told my friend, curled up in a ball on the floor of their room, my head buried between my knees. “I have so much stuff to do!”
Her voice was stern, but with the kind of conviction where you know they’re only doing what’s best for you in that moment. “You need time to recover, you won’t get better like this.”
And she was right. I wasn’t. I needed time to just stop. I had been living the past 2 weeks in a flurry of hell, grabbing onto whatever shred of hope and motivation I had with my fingernails, hoping to claw to the finish line. The “final sprint” so to say, but I’d been sprinting for almost 3 weeks at that point.
“Don’t worry about the things you need to do. The assignments, the grades, the performances, what matters most here is you. You need to be well. None of that matters if you’re not okay.”
As someone that puts others before myself, that was something I desperately needed to hear. I’m a people pleaser, I know that. I try the best I can because I want people’s acceptance. But in doing so, I forget to take care of myself. It’s funny, because you don’t realize it’s happening, until someone else points it out to you.
From those words, I decided she was right. And from there, I took a week off of school. Not because I “wanted it” or “didn’t want to work” or “was giving up”, but because to take care of myself, I needed a break. And that’s 100% valid. If our body is sick, we rest, if our mind is sick, should we not do the same?
2. There is actual merit in taking sick leave for your mental health.
At first I didn’t know what benefit going home and taking a week of off school would do for me. Would I not just fall more behind? These were the thoughts racing through my mind on the way home. Was I running from my problems? Was this all some crazy mind-game I was playing with myself as an excuse to be lazy?
But that wasn’t true. When I got home, I instantly felt a bit better. It was familiar surrounding, my childhood home I’d spent so many years of my life in. It was slowing down and taking a breath. It was surrounding myself with people that I cared about deeply. That tight knot in my chest slowly began to come undone and I knew that I had made the right decision.
Getting the chance to just rest was by far the most rewarding experience. Getting to put myself first, and care for my wellbeing as a number one priority was liberating. I was gathering the strength that would allow me to keep going; to do better and get better.
3. There will be people who understand.
When I first admitted I needed to go home, I was embarrassed. The idea of calling home and crying for my parents to come pick me up was mortifying. I thought they would be confused, or they’d make me explain when I really didn’t want to talk. But when I called them, they listened to me cry on the phone and dropped everything to come get me.
When I went to the doctor to get a doctor’s note, I was terrified she wouldn’t understand why I felt I needed to spend a week out of school, when there was nothing “physically wrong with me”. But she’s been my doctor since I was a young child, and when I told her I needed her help with a doctor’s note, she looked at me and asked, “How did this benefit you?”
I told her that I felt I needed time away from school and work to truly take care of myself. If I was back at home with my parents, I would have the time to rest and move forward with my life. She smiled warmly at me, before turning to the computer to write the note, “That sounds like the best idea for you, yeah?”
Of course it was embarrassing to explain where I was to people back at school. I said it was a “personal emergency”, and the outpouring of support was really heartening. I thought that people would be angry. I had to give up some of the commitments I made because I needed to put myself first, for the first time in a very long time. And I’ve been so blessed to be with people who told me, “That’s okay, thank you so much for your work. I hope you get better soon.”
4. There will also be people who won’t.
And of course, there will be the people who don’t understand. But that’s okay. I spoke to my therapist soon after my leave from school and she told me that she was proud of me for putting myself before other people.
I shared my struggle with how other people perceive me, and what they might think of me, and she gave me some very relevant advice.
It does not matter how other people see you, that’s their problem, and you can’t change how they are and what they think. The only constant you have is yourself, and what matters is how you view yourself, and how much you value yourself.
I’ve learned that being a people pleaser can deteriorate your self-worth, and you’re the only person who will always be with you, so learning to accept yourself and ignore what other people might think about you can be the most liberating thing.
5. You are allowed to rest.
This one is important. When I was at home, I spent the days lying in bed, spending time with my friends and family, and using my free time to do things that I enjoyed. At first, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I wasn’t doing anything school related at all. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the whole point of a health leave is to rest.
You wouldn’t think twice about not doing any work when you’re home sick with the stomach flu. There shouldn’t be a difference if you’re at home sick with mental health issues.
You deserve to take care of yourself and if that means that you can do work, then do it. If that means you need to take time for yourself and just rest, do that. There is no linear way to recover, and you need to learn what’s the best for you.
It’s taken me a long time to learn how to balance self-care and productivity, and I’m still learning, but the most important thing I’ve taken away from taking a mental health leave is that you deserve to take care of yourself however you might need to. You are valuable and important, and deserve that much from yourself.