New Illinois policy is a checkpoint, not a finish line

Newly-instituted five mental health days makes productive leap towards supporting students’ emotional turmoils


Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

In September 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the bill into law, providing students with five mental health days

A new law allows Illinois public school students ages 7 to 17 to be excused from school for five mental health days without being required to present a doctor’s note. this is a productive, large-scale step towards destigmatizing mental health and encouraging students to prioritize their wellbeing. But, schools should do more to create awareness about mental health issues and make people comfortable in dealing with and discussing the issue. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health visits for kids aged 12-17 increased by 31% in 2020 compared to the previous year. 

The recently-enacted mental health days will provide students with the opportunity to step back from their responsibilities for a day in order to relax, recuperate, reflect, and prepare for the coming days. As for what a student should do on these days, it varies among the students and the type of mental health issue they’re experiencing. Each person should individually assess what makes them feel better but can take inspiration from others and other sources. 

With the pandemic placing unique constraints on today’s youth, mental health issues have become increasingly prevalent. Many students have re-entered the typical schedule but have grown unaccustomed to the accountability and relationships it demands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health visits for kids aged 12-17 increased by 31% in 2020 compared to the previous year. 

Schools, including New Trier, should add mental health to the advisery curriculum to teach students about what mental health issues really are: how to recognize them, which feelings are associated with the conditions, what one can do personally to support their wellbeing, and, if necessary, what the outlets are for receiving professional help. 

I’ve gone through my high school career with almost no instruction as to what mental health is. New Trier should offer an advisery presentation with an overview of mental health issues that typically affect teenagers, such as anxiety, toxic stress, and depression, as well as resources students can consult for seeking support. This would effectively bring mental health to the forefront of the students’ mind and would prompt discussion between students and trusted adults, perhaps prompting students to seek help. Many students tend to keep their mental health issues repressed to the point of it weighing on them and preventing them from succeeding in their daily activities. 

As suggested by the American Addiction Centers, schools should create a wellness space by and for students. This space should serve as a calming, accessible location where students can go to decompress and participate in mindful, stress-alleviating activities such as coloring, resting, meditating, or engaging in a simple conversation with a peer or professional. For some, taking just half-an-hour to rejuvenate is easier than taking an entire day and can help to reduce stress and allow a student to productively and calmly continue their day. While this won’t necessarily solve one’s stress, anxiety, or depression, it can serve as a safe space to reduce the severity of their mental health issue, which if done frequently in times of need, can offer significant benefits. 

Lastly, the school should hold monthly presentations by mental health professionals for parents to educate them about signs to look for in their child if they are struggling and how to best support them in their turmoil. This will raise awareness about the issue and prompt conversations between parents and their children. For those who don’t feel comfortable in approaching their parents with their concerns, having the parents initiate the conversation with their child can serve as the starting point for one’s road to recovery. 

In creating this type of open communication, schools can establish an environment where students feel comfortable expressing and confronting their mental health issues, and we can work towards dismantling the prevailing silence that stretches across the issue of mental health.

If you or someone you know are struggling with mental health, reach out to a trusted adult or visit Social Work Services in room 225 on the Winnetka Campus and room B230 on the Northfield Campus.