A mental illness prevents Claudia *, a sophomore at Evanston Township High School, from getting out of bed and going to school some days.
“It’s like any other disease. It’s like I have a fever or a cold, ”says Claudia, who has chosen a pseudonym for data protection reasons. “Just … my brain is actively trying to hurt me in my case.”
Under Illinois law, mental health is not a recognized reason to miss school. But that should change.
In August the Illinois legislature passed passed a new law effective January 1, 2022, which allows students ages 6-17 to take up to five days off school for mental health. Today’s students could take an excused absence to stay home and attend to their mental well-being without a medical certificate.
The law also allows schools to instruct students to support staff after their second day of mental health. However, this does not change the number of days that students can be absent per year. Here’s why some proponents support the law – and why some say it falls short.
Mental health at ETHS
Kate Schultz, Director of Clinical and Preventive Services, Children’s Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County, said the law sends the message to students that they can make mental health a priority.
“I love the idea of giving (children) this autonomy so that they can decide, ‘Hey, I’m having a really hard time right now and I have to take care of myself. And one way to do that is to do a mental health day, ”she said.
Some ETH students reported having taken mental health days in the past, even though this was not officially allowed.
Senior Lauren Dain said she was referring to her absences as mental health days even before the policy was changed. In her opinion, the absence was typically recorded in the attendance book as a “sick day”.
“I think ETHS would excuse you if you put it that way,” said Dain. “It was always kind of an unspoken rule.”
The youngest ETH graduate Nora Mille said students at the school often said they were sick or on a doctor’s appointment when taking mental health days.
Some students said that the mental health culture at ETH is different depending on the social group.
“(In) some circles it is really stigmatized,” said Claudia. “When I mention that, I’ll go to therapy with some people … they treat it like steamed broccoli.”
Proponents of the new law, like Illinois House of Representatives sponsor Lindsey LaPointe, hope it will spark wider awareness.
“It helps de-stigmatize the need for psychological support,” said LaPointe. “We’re changing our system to recognize that sometimes people need to take breaks to just take a deep breath or actually get support for mental and behavioral health care.”
Placement of students for assistants
The new law says that after spending two days on mental health, a student “can be referred to the appropriate school staff.” What this means in concrete terms is left to the individual school districts.
Proponents say this measure proactively takes the burden off students from asking for help and allows the school to identify students with difficulty.
“I would be particularly concerned if students spend several days on mental health in a short period of time,” said ETH physics teacher Mark Vondracek. “It’s kind of a smoking gun that something more significant happens.”
Others stressed that this law can connect students to a support system.
According to Valerie Cifuentes, an Evanston-based therapist who works with Schultz at the Children’s Advocacy Center, providing outside organizations would help step in faster and give students more access to resources.
However, some students expressed reservations.
ETHS Senior Emi Brady understands the value of monitoring student wellbeing, but said determining it makes them feel like the school is controlling them.
“It then gives me less incentive to call it a mental health day because I don’t want to get a call from a social worker and scare my parents,” they said. “Mental health days look different for everyone.”
Dain acknowledged that students were reluctant to reach out to staff, but said it made provision even more important.
“Within ETHS in particular, there is a little concern about turning to mental health resources,” she said. “I think it’s a good connection that forces the adjustment of what is going on with the student.”
Realizing that some students may be reluctant to speak to staff, Schultz said schools should give students as much freedom of action as possible in their own mental health care.
She encouraged schools to connect with outside community mental health resources so they can offer students a variety of options.
“Talk to the student and ask, ‘How do you feel about the connection to resources?'” She said. “We want them to have a choice.”
The broader mental health landscape
Mental health days are an element in a larger student health system – one that many say needs significant improvement.
Angela Allyn, a mother of three ETH graduates, said the law did not address systemic problems in mental health care.
“It’s a simple gesture. It’s a low hanging fruit, ”she said. “Giving someone a mental health day can help them not get into (a) crisis, but it does not provide support.”
Allyn pointed to deeper-rooted problems, such as the lack of teachers, social workers, and psychologists in schools and long waiting times for psychiatric assessments.
Many called for further changes. Vondracek spoke about the need for a stronger emphasis on social-emotional learning. Brady noted the lack of research on mental illness among Asian women and other marginalized communities. Dain said schools need clearer communication about resources that are available to students.
However, aside from these changes, Claudia believes that the current school system cannot really support the mental health of students.
“Our school system is designed in many ways for burnout and anxiety and depression between college and grade pressures, peer pressure and all these different things.” She said. “This system is not sustainable.”
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