Students can now take mental health days off in more states

Linnea Sorensen is thrown into a panic when her four-year-old girlfriend leaves her for six months with the Marines.

10 June 2022 Friday 07:08
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Students can now take mental health days off in more states

Linnea Sorensen is thrown into a panic when her four-year-old girlfriend leaves her for six months with the Marines. The high school junior also has difficulty concentrating on classwork.

The 17-year old said that she struggles with her mental health. She attends school in Schaumburg (Ill.), a suburb of around 77,000 people northwest Chicago. "It's almost like you don't grasp anything when you're at school, but not fully mentally there."

Illinois now offers Sorensen and other students a new way to deal with low mental health. Another example of lawmakers' growing recognition that physical and emotional health are intertwined, the state now allows K-12 students to be excused from school for mental health reasons five times per school year. Both chambers of the state legislature approved the new policy unanimously. It went into effect in 2022.

This story was created in partnership with Kaiser Health News.

These innovative policies, however, are only a small step towards addressing the problem of teenage mental health, which has been highlighted and exacerbated due to the educational interruptions that have occurred because of the pandemic. Many areas of the country lack therapists that can help students with mental health issues.

Seventy-five percent of schools who responded to a federal survey conducted in April stated that more students have sought out mental health services since the outbreak. National Center for Education Statistics polling revealed that 56% of schools did not provide effective mental health services for all students. Only 41% reported that they have hired new staff to address student's mental health needs.

According to government data, nearly half of the country lives in areas where there is a shortage of mental health workers. This means that an estimated 7,550 professionals are needed to fill this void. Many children are unable to access mental health services, even in areas where they are more common.

Other states that have laws that allow students to take their mental health days aEUR", such as Arizona, California and Colorado, Connecticut, Maine. Nevada, Oregon. Utah, Utah, Virginia, etc., a lack of services for young persons remains a concern.

Schools in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Maryland, Utah, and Utah have attempted to close the gap by using less expensive solutions such as mindfulness rooms, in-class meditation, and social-emotional education. In recent months, conservative lawmakers have made this a major curriculum focus.

A 2020 Mental Health America survey asked young people about their top mental health needs. The top two responses were from 14-18-year-olds: access to mental health professionals, and mental health absences or break as part of school or at work.

Tamar Mendelson is the director of the Center for Adolescent Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She stated that "the more we can shift towards a prevention mindset, and integrate mental health promotion in schools starting at a young age. That will help reduce the need for treatment that we see among young people."

Illinois' mental health professionals and education officials agree that the mental day policy is a great start in addressing the youth mental health crisis. This problem had been growing due to cyberbullying, school shootings, and then the pandemic. This is yet another sign that schools are being increasingly relied on to provide social services for students, including feeding, clothing, and vaccinations, as well as identifying abuse and neglect.

Ben Lobo spoke out about the mental health of his students at Schaumburg High School, saying "I've been teaching for 19 years and this is as bad a situation as I've ever seen."

Susan Resko, the president and CEO at the Josselyn Center in north Chicago, described the pandemic as "like putting fuel on a fire"

Resko stated that the nonprofit had received 50 clients per month before March 2020. This number now stands at 250. Two-thirds of them are young adults or children. In the last year, 70 therapists were hired by the organization. There has been an increase in requests from schools for mental health counseling services.

The new Illinois law is being criticized by some who claim it excludes those families that do not have access to child care. Officials don't have enough data from schools to know if the policy is being implemented.

Schools are not required by the Illinois State Board of Education to report the number of students who have taken mental health absences. KHN reached out to the 10 largest schools in Illinois for this data. Six districts were not contacted (the ones based in Elgin and Schaumburg), while three stated that they aren't tracking the number (Chicago), or couldn't release it.

Plainfield, Illinois school officials said that 3,703 students used a total of 6,237 mental health days between January and the end of the school year. The town is located 35 miles southwest from Chicago. This means that nearly 15% of students used an average of 1.7 school days. Officials noted that 123 days of these days were used before the summer break.

Before the pandemic, the community was working to offer more services to students. Plainfield Community Consolidated Schools District 202 hired 20 social workers in 2019, after data showed that students were more likely to be admitted to hospital overnight than they had been for the past five years. This type of staff growth "doesn’t happen in education," stated Tim Albores, district director of student services.

The new state policy requires that district officials refer students to the "appropriate school staff" after they have suffered a second mental health-related absence. Plainfield's services are not affordable for many schools, education officials claim. In rural areas, they may have difficulty finding qualified people to fill these positions.

Chicago doesn't plan to have a social worker in every one of its 600 schools by 2024. They often spend most of their time with students who are receiving special education services through an individualized educational program (IEP).

"Every day, my door is knocked on." I must choose aEUR. Am I going to reschedule IEP services or help a student in crisis like this one? Mary Difino is a social worker at Brian Piccolo Specialty School, Chicago's West Side. "I work in a neighborhood that has a lot trauma. There's a lot community violence. There's a lot death and hardship.

Heaven Draper, a fourth-grader at Brian Piccolo said that she has used two mental health days. One was to get away from a chaotic classroom environment, aEUR", she claimed, and one to relax from the stress of applying for and testing for high school in the city. She said, "This is our first year in person since being released from quarantine." It's been overwhelming at times.

Ariyonnah Brown (14 years old) said that she used her class day to assist another student. She expressed her desire to see greater awareness about mental health in adults, particularly in communities of color such as hers.

"Parents must be educated," stated Sheila Blanco (57), a Chicago food distributor purchaser whose 14-year old daughter, Carli, committed suicide in 2017. Many parents don't know where resources are or how to help their child.

Anna Sanderson, a junior at Schaumburg High School, stated that she thinks the policy is a good one, but not for her. The 17-year old said, "If I miss one day because I'm overwhelmed, or not feeling well mentally then I feel like when my turn comes back, it'll only make things worse." "I'll have assignments to complete and will be late in class."

She said that she hopes this is a sign of more support for students' mental well-being. She stated that schools often fail to recognize student suicides and to offer counseling that goes beyond education.

She said, "I feel like we are dismissed a lot of times."

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you or someone you care about is considering suicide.

KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom, produces in-depth journalism on health issues. It is an independent editorial program run by Kaiser Family Foundation.



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