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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

mental health day

(1980’s | businese? therapese? | “sick day,” “day off”)

Always closely linked to workplace stress (cf. “power nap” and “go postal” in this regard) and always tied to the much older concept of the sick day, that venerable custom which affords employees the right (nay, duty, in the case of contagious disease) to take an unscheduled day off due to unforeseen illness. In the seventies, the phrase “mental health day” was unusual, most often used about intensive care nurses or inner-city teachers; now anyone with a medium-stress job may need one. The expression became more common in the eighties, beating out competitors including “sick-and-tired leave,” which I rather like. I don’t remember hearing it before the mid-nineties, when I learned it from my worldly-wise girlfriend. That was just after I had started working nine-to-five following a stint in graduate school, where every day is a mental health day.

I should not fail to mention World Mental Health Day, which falls every year on October 10. This is not a day for everyone in the world to sick out (great idea, though), but a day to learn about and think about mental illness and how we may help those who are afflicted. That’s actually what you would expect from this construction; phrases that end in “day” often refer to such secular observances. (Weeks and months get the same treatment.) Oh, it’s Mental Health Day and the president of the Mental Health Society is giving an address at the bughouse. Or getting one. I apologize for the persiflage, but sometimes I just can’t resist. Anyway, if it weren’t for the fixed association with “sick day,” we might hear this phrase quite differently.

There has never been a generally effective way to prevent people from taking sick days when they feel fine physically, and employers resent that. But the mental health day partly redeems it; you’re skipping work to cope with excessive stress, which, left unchecked, will exact a much greater toll — physical and mental — than an occasional day off. The expression still carries the implication of an undeserved break, but that appears to be changing slowly as the old bosses die off. The next generation may be more willing to accept them as inevitable. Maybe union contracts of the future will include provision for mental health days. And power naps.

Lovely Liz from Queens, or maybe her daughter, pointed out recently that mental health means mental illness. It’s true, and it’s a big reason why troubled minds continue to attract less sympathy than injured bodies. If you are not demonstrably mentally ill, then mental health is not an issue; the subject just doesn’t come up. That isn’t true of corporeal health, which we understand in more complex terms than mere absence of obvious infirmities. Improved mental health is a goal only for those who know they are sick. There is such a thing as mental fitness, but it’s a legal expression. And it’s not analogous to physical fitness; it’s more like the minimum strength required to get around without keeling over. Just as most people have minor bodily ailments that don’t prevent them from getting through the day, most of us have observable but non-crippling deformities of the mind or spirit. But we take greater pains to ignore them, because of the shame and stigma they bring.


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