Illinois’s new mental health absence policy is a step in the right direction

A+recent+bill+passed+by+Illinois+legislature+promotes+the+idea+that+mental+health+is+just+as+important+as+physical+health.+

Photo by Marcel Straus via Unsplash.com

A recent bill passed by Illinois legislature promotes the idea that mental health is just as important as physical health.

Mukul Kulkarni, Copy Editor

Since the beginning of 2020, the pandemic has challenged students’ ability to maintain proper mental health for well-being. Illinois recently passed a bill that will offer more opportunities for students to get the help they need with their mental health. 

Illinois governor J.B Pritzker signed a bill in August 2021, allowing students between the ages of 7 and 17 to take five excused mental health days starting in January 2022. Students who decide to take a mental health day will not require a doctor’s note and will be able to make up any work that was missed on their day off. 

With the option to take a mental health day, students will have the opportunity to spend the day making up past missed assignments, relaxing at home or even spending extra time with family.

The bill was passed with the students’ mental health in mind. COVID-19 induced unfamiliar strains on students. “Many students feel stressed and have developed anxiety and depression because they’re not able to see teachers and friends, and may have lower grades due to remote learning,” said State Representative Barbara Hernandez.

In an April 2020 survey, Active Minds surveyed 3,239 high school and higher education students regarding the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health. Forty-eight percent of the high school students said their mental health had worsened and 12% said COVID had significantly worsened their mental health. Seventy-four percent of the surveyed students said that stress or anxiety from COVID-19 had a major impact on them.

With this bill, as soon as a student calls in their second mental health day, the student’s school counselor will reach out to the student’s family and may refer them to get professional help, ensuring that student’s mental health needs are met. 

Illinois is not the only state to pass a bill for excused school days off of school. In the past two years alone, several states such as Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Virginia have passed bills allowing students to take days off for mental reasons.

With Illinois’s implementation of this bill, many have wondered if Iowa will soon follow suit.

Although the idea to allow students to take a break is a good one, the likelihood of a similar bill passing in Iowa is small.

Two nursing students from University of Iowa advocated for Iowa lawmakers to pass a similar bill in January 2020; however, according to BillTrack50, a website to track legislation, the bill was marked as “failed” in June 2020 for unclear reasons. 

Discussion surrounding the implementation of a similar bill in Iowa have raised several questions, one being, “Would a student’s mental health needs be better met outside or inside of school?”

The bottom line is that schools want their students to be in school as much as possible. Not only are students less susceptible to missing the schoolwork for the days they missed, but they are more likely to get the help they need at school. 

Jason Jones is the Associate Principal at PV. To his knowledge, students do better when they are at school. “In my experiences working with students struggling with anxiety or depression, it’s really important to get them into school where we have a team for them that have been educated in counseling and dealing with anxiety.” Jones explained. 

Not only does this ensure the school that the students in need are spending their time prudently on bettering their mental health, it also helps develop life skills such as having strong attendance, that can be applied in places such as college or work. 

Scott Rice,a counselor at PV, stressed how coming to school and seeking help could be beneficial even for the long-term. “When students are [at school], we are better able to come up with strategies to navigate with the difficult situations and those undesirable feelings so that students can establish healthier habits and mindsets,” Rice explained. “So even when students are preparing for life outside of secondary school students can navigate those challenges too.”

Another area of concern is if a student stays home to finish past assignments, would the student have increased stress from then having to make up the skipped day’s work?

Fortunately, as a result of the pandemic shutting down schools for the 2019-2020 school year and forcing PV to do a hybrid-schedule for the 2020-2021 school year, teachers value using Google Classroom and Canvas and posting weekly schedules so that students had access to all the materials and knew what was going on each week. Teachers still widely use these tools even with fully in-person learning.

So if students were to take their personal days off prior to COVID-19, students would have had to come in the next day to ask for their missed work; however, with the online tools available now largely due to the pandemic, it is much easier for students to know and make up their assignments that they missed on their day of absence. It is important to note, however, that it does not necessarily mean that the assignments that need to be completed do not stack on. 

Although the initiative to allow students to take some time off of school is a step in the right direction for addressing students’ mental health, there are some concerns that have not been addressed. However, it is good to know that students’ mental health is being taken as seriously and efforts are being made to combat this serious issue.