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Illinois kids will soon be able to take up to 5 mental health days off from school

As per the bill, once a student requests a second mental health day off, a school counselor will reach out to their family to refer professional help.

Illinois kids will soon be able to take up to 5 mental health days off from school
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/Halfpoint Images

Starting January 2022, students across Illinois will be able to take up to five no-questions-asked mental health days off from school. Under a bill co-sponsored by State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D- Aurora, and signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker earlier this month, students who decide to take mental health days will not be required to provide schools with a doctor’s note and will be able to make up any work they missed on their days off. "Having this now for all students across the state will be really beneficial, especially with what's going on with COVID," Hernandez told the Journal-Courier.


"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. This will allow them to get the help they need," she added. According to the bill, once a student requests a second mental health day off, a school counselor will reach out to their family to discuss and come up with a plan to get the child professional help. Hernandez explained that students should understand they'll have to have a conversation with an adult about whatever it is they're going through. 


"I am really excited for this. I think it will help students, parents, and teachers, and can help them understand what's going on in their students' lives. Many students are going through a lot mentally and emotionally and they need support," Hernandez said. "Another important thing is that they don't need to provide a doctor's note, so parents don't have to take their child in to a medical provider. Parents can just call the school and let them know their student is taking a mental health day. Schools will have time to update their attendance policy, and which steps to take."


"The districts, by law, have to make sure a student seeks help after the second mental health day, but this time will allow schools to determine their plans," she added. "Schools were supportive (of the bill), and this was something people saw as a priority and we wanted to make sure it passed." According to NPR, as students enter their third academic year that’s been impacted by the pandemic, child psychiatrists expect to see a surge of kids who need professional help to cope with the unique strains they're dealing with right now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November that between March and May of last year, hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in the number of mental health emergency visits by kids between the ages of 5 and 11 and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17.


"The younger school-age kids are more anxious about separation from their parents and caregivers," said Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio. "They're worried about getting sick," or their parents getting sick, he added. The challenges are somewhat different for teens as they grapple with the social and academic anxiety of socializing with their peers after so long and adapting to full-time in-person learning.


Addressing the ambiguity as to what constitutes a mental health day and how best to spend it, Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz — medical director of the Child Mind Institute and a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in New York City — told The New York Times that families should view it as a joyous opportunity to celebrate your child's efforts in school. For example, if a child wants a day off to relax and recalibrate after handing in a big project, it is "perfectly appropriate" to cash in a mental health day, Dr. Koplewicz said. However, he cautioned that parents should ensure their child isn't using this provision to avoid situations at school that are making them uncomfortable.


Instead, he suggests trying to pinpoint exactly where their anxiety is stemming from. "Are they avoiding something because it is too challenging? Are they being hurt in some way?" Dr. Koplewicz asked. He explained that parents might need to have a deeper conversation about what's going on if their child doesn't want to be in school at all or shows symptoms of depression, like insomnia, oversleeping or a lack of interest in normal activities. In such cases, simply giving them a "mental health day" might inadvertently minimize mental health disorders, Dr. Koplewicz said. "Sick days are sick days, whether it's physical or mental," he added.

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