Here’s why some support the law authorizing mental health days in Illinois schools, and why some say it falls short


Emma Yarger/Daily Senior Staffer

A law authorizing Illinois students to take mental health days goes into effect Jan. 1, 2022. Some advocates say this will help destigmatize mental health support. Some also say it doesn’t go far enough.

Aviva Bechky, Reporter

Mental illness keeps Claudia*, a sophomore at Evanston Township High School, from getting out of bed and going to school some days. 

“It’s like any other sickness. It’s like I have a fever or a cold,” said Claudia, who chose a pseudonym to protect her privacy. “Only … my brain is actively trying to hurt me in my case.”

Under Illinois law, mental health is not an approved reason to miss school. But that’s about to change.

In August, the Illinois legislature passed a new law effective Jan. 1, 2022 authorizing students ages 6 to 17 to take up to five mental health days off of school. These days would let students take an excused absence to stay home and care for their mental well-being without a doctor’s note.

The law also allows schools to direct students to support staff after their second mental health day. But it does not change the number of days students can be absent per year. Here’s why some advocates support the law — and why some say it falls short. 

Mental health at ETHS

Kate Schultz, the director of clinical and prevention services at the Children’s Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County, said the law sends students the message they can prioritize mental health.

“I love the idea of giving (kids) that autonomy to be able to decide, ‘Hey, I’m really having a hard time right now and I need to take care of myself. And one way that I can do that is to take a mental health day,’” she said.

Some ETHS students said they’ve taken mental health days in the past, even though they weren’t officially allowed.

Senior Lauren Dain said she has called in her absences as mental health days, even prior to the policy change. According to her, the absence was typically marked as a “sick day” in the attendance book.

“I think that ETHS would excuse it if you say it like that,” Dain said. “It was always kind of an unspoken rule.”

Recent ETHS graduate Nora Miller said students also often told the school they were sick or at a doctor’s appointment when taking mental health days.

Some students said the culture around mental health at ETHS varies by social group.

“(In) some circles it’s really stigmatized,” Claudia said. “If I bring up that I go to therapy around some people … they’ll treat it like steamed broccoli.”

Advocates for the new law, such as Illinois House of Representatives sponsor Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, hope it will promote wider awareness.

“It helps to destigmatize the need for mental health support,” LaPointe said. “We are changing our system to recognize that people need to take pauses sometimes to just take a breath or actually get support for mental and behavioral health care needs.”

Referring students to support staff

The new law says after a student takes two mental health days, they “may be referred to the appropriate school support personnel.” The specifics of what this entails are left to individual school districts.

Advocates say this measure proactively takes the burden of asking for help off of students and allows the school to identify struggling students.

“I would be especially worried if students take multiple mental health days in a short period of time,” ETHS physics teacher Mark Vondracek said. “That’s kind of a smoking gun at some level that something more significant is happening.”

Others emphasized this law can connect students with a support system.

The provision would help outside organizations intervene faster and provide students with more access to resources, according to Valerie Cifuentes, an Evanston-based therapist who works with Schultz at the Children’s Advocacy Center.

But some students expressed reservations.

ETHS senior Emi Brady understands the value of monitoring students’ well-being, but said the provision makes them feel like the school is controlling her.

“That gives me less incentive to call it a mental health day then, because I don’t want to get a call from a social worker and make my parents frightened,” they said. “Mental health days look different for everyone.”

Dain acknowledged a hesitation among students to reach out to staff, but said she thinks that makes the provision even more important.

“Within ETHS specifically, there’s a bit of apprehension to go to the mental health resources,” she said. “I think it’s a good connection that forces the adjusting of what’s going on with the student.”

Recognizing some students may be hesitant about speaking with staff, Schultz said schools should allow students as much agency as possible in their own mental health care.

She encouraged schools to build connections with external mental health resources in the community so they can offer students a variety of options.

“Check in with the student and asking them, ‘How do you feel about being connected to resources?’” she said. “We want them to have choice.”

The wider mental health landscape

Mental health days are one element in a larger student health system — one that many say still needs significant improvement.

Angela Allyn, a parent of three ETHS graduates, said the law doesn’t address more systemic problems within mental health care.

“It’s an easy gesture. It’s low hanging fruit,” she said. “Giving someone a mental health day may help them not get to (a) crisis, but it provides no support.”

Allyn pointed to more deeply-rooted issues: a lack of teachers, social workers and psychologists in schools and long psychiatric evaluation wait times, for example.

Many called for further change. Vondracek discussed the need for greater 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 available to students.

Beyond these changes, however, Claudia thinks the current school system cannot  genuinely support student mental health.

“In many ways, our school system has been designed for burnout and anxiety and depression between college pressure and grade pressure, and pressure from peers and all these different things.” she said. “This system isn’t sustainable.”


Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @avivabechky

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