This is a challenging time to be a student.
All generations had it rough. They all face the stress of preparing to leave the nest and being responsible for themselves. Graduates in the thirties had to face the Great Depression. Those in the forties had to contend with World War II. The fifties had the Cold War. The sixties and seventies had the twin terrors of the Sexual Revolution and drug abuse. And on and on it goes.
However, students have never faced such massive uncertainty as today. Increasing numbers of teens are dealing with broken, blended, and re-broken homes. Many have parents who never became adults. Others have overcautious parents that force them to live in worlds without risk, and so they never gain coping skills. The Internet connects them instantly with vast amounts of information – and depravity. Relative social standards have taught many of them that they can rely upon nothing.
Thus, modern teenagers are unsurprisingly under massive levels of stress.
In this light, the State of Oregon has now decided to allow students to take “mental health days.”
According to the directive, students can take days off if they feel anxiety and stress. Such an opportunity can lead to abuse. A student might well take a day off rather than face a difficult math test. Another might want to avoid an unpleasant social situation. A more lazy pupil might not want to get out of bed on Monday morning. Gone are times of telling parents of an imaginary head- or stomach-ache to avoid school. Now an anxiety moment will suffice. No doubt, some people see the new rule as another hare-brained liberal stunt to deflect blame from the failing school system.
However, there are some authentic and sad statistics that prompted the law. According to the Oregon Health Authority, “Oregon’s age-adjusted suicide rate of 17.7 per 100,000 residents in 2015 was 33 percent higher than the national average and Oregon ranked 13th place among all US states in suicide incidence.”
Thus, the Oregon authorities are well-intentioned. Teen suicide is a real problem there and in the rest of the nation. However, a nagging question arises. Will this new policy work?
In some isolated cases, such days off might help a few teenagers, feeling that their worlds are spinning out of control. Taking a day away from their usual schedule may help them to realize that suicide is a permanent end to a temporary problem. Perhaps they will see some beauty of nature and recognize that life is too beautiful to throw away. Some might even visit a church and realize that God is greater than all of their problems. From such experiences, these fortunate few may derive the strength to face each new day.
However, the chances of this happening are slim, very slim. For the vast majority of cases, taking a day off school will do little or nothing to change the circumstances that propel young people to take their own lives. It might even complicate life more by allowing students to put off the problems instead of facing them.
The new Oregon law is far more likely to be an example of politicians doing one of two things that they do all too well.
Legislators love simplistic pseudo-solutions to complex problems, especially if they cost nothing. Such actions enable lawmakers to go to their constituents and claim to be doing something. Perhaps, they can even get a “photo-op” with the grief-stricken parents as they vow to take action. In the world of the televised “sound byte,” the appearance of care is far more important than finding a lasting solution.
Legislators also love turning complicated and thorny problems over to the schools. Since they are already funded, adding a new task adds nothing to the state budget. Since the school environment is already one of care and concern, students might find adults who will help them put their problems into perspective. Perhaps taking two or three “mental health days” will encourage an already overburdened teacher or counselor to ask the students if they need help. They imagine such conversations will lead young people to cope with their problems. If it doesn’t work, the authorities can at least pretend that they tried.
The fact is that teenage suicide is not a problem in and of itself. It cannot be solved in isolation. It is a symptom of a broken and wholly secular society. Such a society has little to offer to its young people but lives without connection, commitment, or lasting joy. Young people need faith, hope, and stability far more than another reason to take a day away from school.