Mental Health Days Are Important. Here’s How to Make Yours Worthwhile.

Nov. 18, 2021

Well readers share advice on how to get away from it all.

“How did relaxing for one day become so hard to do?”

Lena Poole, a primary care doctor in Austin, Texas, posed this question recently as she and her husband, who works in public health, decided to schedule a much-needed mental health day together. Then, she said, they went “round and round” trying to figure out how to spend it.

The pandemic has pushed many of us to re-examine our priorities and become more attuned to our needs, so the idea of taking a mental health day away from work or school has begun to seem essential rather than daring. But what is the ideal way to fill those hours so that we walk away feeling refreshed and recharged?

We turned to our readers to find out what they do during a mental health day. The replies poured in — and not just from those caught up in the rat race. Some said they had been retired for years, others were stay-at-home parents and some responded on behalf of their burned out teenagers.

Here are their ideas:

Starting in August, I began scheduling a once-a-month “play day” to do whatever I want. I usually take the bus/train into New York City to a museum, a park, window shopping, etc., walking as much as I can. I buy lunch (eating outdoors) and usually a decadent sweet treat to savor alone. I come home just after dinner hour (so that I don’t feel obliged to cook that day) feeling refreshed and ready for the next daily grind.

Colleen Goidel, Hoboken, N.J.

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I go to a matinee movie. I go alone. Get my own soda and popcorn and I immerse myself. It’s a nice way to avoid all the competing demands on my attention for a couple hours.

Candace Davis, Washington

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I usually take a mental health day because I need to just lay in bed all day and stare at the walls. The point is not what to do on these days or how to do it, but the sense of relief that comes from “I am OK beyond what I can do or produce. I am worthy and OK just because I am here.”

Ilse Murdock, City Island, Bronx, N.Y.

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During my last mental health day, I hiked up to the top of Flattop, a mountain in Anchorage, Alaska, that looks like an enormous tabletop overlooking the city. I needed space and air. It was just hard enough to escape and get a thrill, but safe enough to not be stressful. There were some paragliders jumping off the top of it that day and it was beautiful. I watched them float down into the mountain valley wondering how and where they would land.

Elijah Haines, Anchorage, Alaska

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Pull weeds in my yard. They don’t talk back, so it’s the perfect stress reliever. And the yard looks better when I’m done.

Mary Ann Rood, Fernandina Beach, Fla.

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My mom would let me take a “mental health day” when I was in high school in the ’90s, usually exhausted from a string of big projects and tests or just needing a break from teenage life. I was to always treat it as a sick day, since we were telling everyone that was why, so a quiet day of reading, trash TV, movies, and maybe baking and kitchen experiments in comfy clothes. My mom said she knew if I had a day of rest I’d be able to stay well, but if I burned out, I’d be more likely to actually get sick.

Elisabeth Leekley, Boston Area

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I have bipolar disorder, so I usually take a mental health day when I feel prone to a depressed, manic or mixed episode. Typically, I will listen to a new album, either one that has been recently released or one that is new to me. Then, I’ll usually take a walk to a nearby park and just sit somewhere and observe everything around me — dogs being walked, children playing tag, couples going for picnics. Sunlight and fresh air can make me go from melancholic to balanced, or at least closer to balanced.

Claire Goray, Glasgow

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My 13-year-old soccer-obsessed son asked to miss school for a mental health day. He spent the day in bed, sipping hot chocolate and working on a script for a musical. He said it was the best day of his life.

Holly Roberson, Berkeley, Calif.

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This is a bit sad, but when I take a mental health day I use it to clean the house, plan vacations, camp/child care and schedule appointments. Basically I use the time to catch up on things that are difficult to do during the regular work week. Granted, I usually do this while still in my PJs, drinking hot coffee or tea, and possibly with a podcast or show playing in the background — and when the kids are all at school! So it’s not all bad.

Claire R., Seattle

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My mental health days are usually triggered by feeling completely overwhelmed by my self-inflicted and overly ambitious to-do lists. So I cross off items. I make that recipe, organize that corner of the apartment, find a YouTube video to help me fix the drafty window. Or at least I pretend that I’m going to do these things. Instead, I spend a few hours doing something mindless in front of a screen, maybe do one or two things, then silently erase half the remaining items from the list.

Lauren Gledhill, New Britain, Conn.

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I do what I want to do. Period. Swimming outside on a warm summer day at 6 a.m., then to Starbucks. Then go bike riding for 50 miles. Sure, I check my work email now and then. But what made a difference was that I had told everyone in advance I was taking a mental health day. So no one was expecting me to be online and I knew there wouldn’t be anything pressing.

Rob Hill, Minneapolis

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I moved from N.Y.C. to Vancouver, B.C., in 2019 and live in the small, quiet village of Deep Cove. Any break I get, I spend on the trails in the woods outside my home. I can’t believe this is where I live and where I am raising my daughters. Who knew ferns were so spectacular and make you feel like you’re walking the Earth in prehistoric times? The strain of the pandemic mixed with postpartum depression and not seeing my family has definitely taken its toll. In N.Y.C., I would have spent the day at the spa or time in the spin studio and nail salon. Having easy access to the forest and these quiet trails has been way more restorative.

Rebecca C., North Vancouver, B.C., Canada

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I call it museum swimming. We’re so fortunate as Americans to have access to incredible museums across the U.S., with many hosting free days for the public. To go museum swimming requires only a museum and one rule: Try not to read the placards on the wall. (Although very comfortable shoes are also helpful.)

Paige McAfee, Philadelphia

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I am a therapist who assesses and treats PTSD at the Memphis V.A. My mental health days (few and far between) are often spent pulling weeds and tidying my garden beds — clearing the clutter that I can and letting some spaces exist as they are. It’s a lot like my work but not as painful.

Kitty Frazer, Memphis

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I’ve been retired for 8 years. My wife still works. That means I’m the “house manager.” As any caretaker in the world knows, taking care of the house and family is grueling. So a retired guy takes a mental health day, too. I close the blinds and get the house to 70 degrees. I won’t take in news. I’ll binge watch funny shows. I’ll have a glass of wine. A pot gummy bear perhaps. I “float” around my backyard garden trying to stay in the moment and appreciate how beautiful my garden has become. Maybe I’ll have pizza delivered. I often stay in my pajamas all day. It’s wonderful.

Jerry, Bay Area