He’s one of those superstar kids, Asante. A leader in everything he did at Richard Montgomery High School, in student government since middle school, headed to Cornell University this fall, an outspoken advocate for social justice. He’s so confident, he’s a teenage guy who lobbied for easy access to menstrual hygiene products in schools. And won. Wow, right?
But, like so many high achievers, he was spit-shining a happy, confident veneer while struggling with the difficulty of the coronavirus pandemic deep inside.
Asante ran his campaign for the school board position, finished his junior year and started his senior year “all down there, locked in my basement,” he said. And it took a toll on him.
“I’m super critical of myself. And I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t take a mental health day off,” he said.
Until he had to. And then he understood what his peers were talking about.
It’s what the world is talking about this week thanks to tennis star Naomi Osaka, 23, who bowed out of the French Open to address her mental health.
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka said in a statement she posted on Instagram.
She first tried to simply step aside from news conferences without explaining her struggle. And she took some heat for that. But once she opened up with a statement that explained her social anxiety and need to work on her mental health, the world had an a-ha moment on what it means to take care of our heads.
“As athletes we are taught to take care of our body,” tennis legend Martina Navratilova wrote in a tweet, after initially criticizing Osaka’s step back from the spotlight before Osaka explained why she was withdrawing, “and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift.”
We’re used to marveling at high achievers as they slay the universe in dazzling ways, then gulp down their memoirs years later, when they confess to the mental anguish they hid all those years.
Asante was seeing this in his own universe.
Sure, it’s easy to take a mental health day when you don’t call it that. Tell your parents you’ve got a tummy ache, and they’ll write you a note.
When I was a teenager, working weekends as a waitress, applying to college, trying to keep my grades up, navigating the mean girls, I struggled with depression. I didn’t understand what it was. But what helped was skipping class to have a picnic by the lake, hitting the slopes or shooting cans with my dad for a day. We called it a ditch day.
Asante wants today’s students to be able to call it what it really is: a mental health day.
And the idea was one of the first things he brought to the board right after he took office in September. Vice President Brenda Wolff gave the one dissenting vote to Asante’s proposal, saying that parents could already excuse a child as unwell without explanation. She said that being explicit about mental health was policy busywork and a paperwork nightmare. The rest of the board, however, was willing to hear Asante out.
Increasingly, the mental well-being of our nation’s students is being taken more seriously when it comes to less tangible conditions such as anxiety and depression.
More than a third of high school students in the United States experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009. In 2019, about 16 percent of youth reported making a suicide plan, a 44 percent increase since 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s 1 in 6, like one member of every high school hockey or volleyball lineup coming home from practice and making plans to kill themselves. That’s not something to dismiss.
Even before the pandemic and the grinding toll it has taken on everyone’s psyches, school boards in New Jersey, Oregon and Utah discussed or passed mental health day measures.
Just nine months after Asante first brought it up in Maryland, the proposal is being implemented in Montgomery County. And board member Patricia O’Neill explained why.
“It gives parents permission to pay attention to their child’s well-being, to really be in tune with their child,” she told me, remembering the days when her grown daughters were in high school and needed a day to unplug, but permitting it was taboo.
“We heard all year from parents about the impact of the pandemic,” she said. They were talking about learning loss, curriculum, sports events, the prom. “I’m not sure anyone even realized this discussion about mental health was happening among the students.”
She said that officially making mental health a reason to take a sick day from school codifies the importance of mental well-being.
“A lot of adults joke about taking a mental health day off from work, going golfing or something,” she said. But they didn’t always get that kids may need that, too.
Asante needed to hear it from his peers — not only to make a sweeping policy change in one of the state’s largest school districts. He also needed to know that he could take a day off to take care of his well-being, too.
What did he do on his mental health day?
He caught up on work, he said, adding: “But I also like to just stay in bed for part of the day and watch Netflix.”
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