Giles Bruce/Kaiser Health News
Linnea Sorensen goes into a daze when her four-year-old friend leaves for her six-month stint in the Marines, and the high school student struggles to focus on her schoolwork.
“I’m someone who struggles quite a bit with my mental health,” said the 17-year-old, who goes to school in Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburb of about 77,000 people northwest of Chicago. “When you’re in school and you’re not quite there mentally, it’s like you don’t really understand anything after all.”
Now Illinois is giving Sorensen and students like her a new option for dealing with mental health issues. The state allows K-12 students in public schools to have five excused absences per school year for mental health reasons, another example of the growing recognition among lawmakers that emotional and physical health are intertwined. The new policy, which went into effect in early 2022, was passed unanimously by both chambers of the state legislature.
But such new policies are in many ways half a step toward addressing the teenage mental health crisis that has been highlighted and exacerbated by the educational interruptions caused by the pandemic. Many parts of the country are woefully short of therapists who can work with students to deal with mental health issues.
Seventy percent of schools that responded to a federal survey in April said more students had sought mental health care since the pandemic began. The National Center for Education Statistics poll also found that only 56% of schools said they effectively provide mental health services to all students in need, and only 41% reported hiring new staff to help address the problem. mental health needs of students.
According to government data, nearly half of the nation lives in a designated area with a shortage of mental health professionals, and it takes an estimated 7,550 new professionals to fill that void across the country. Even in places where mental health professionals are more present, they often do not accept public insurance, making them inaccessible to many children.
In other states where lawmakers have introduced policies that allow students to take mental health days — including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Virginia — a lack of youth services remains a concern.
Schools in Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Utah and Washington, DC, have tried to narrow the gap through lower-cost solutions, such as classroom meditation, mindfulness spaces, and social-emotional learning. The latter has become a curriculum target of conservative lawmakers in recent months.
Greatest Mental Health Needs
In a 2020 Mental Health America survey of youth’s top mental health needs, the top responses among 14- to 18-year-olds were access to mental health professionals and absence or breaks from mental health as part of school or work.
“The more we can switch to a prevention mindset and integrate mental health promotion into schools from an early age, I see that as a very important factor in reducing the need for treatment we see in young people,” says Tamar Mendelson , director of the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Illinois education officials and mental health experts say mental health day policies are a good start to addressing a youth mental health crisis that grew during an era of school shootings and cyberbullying and then exploded during the pandemic. The move is another indication that schools are increasingly being relied on to meet the social needs of students, from nutrition, clothing and vaccination to detecting abuse and neglect.
“I’ve been a teacher for 19 years, and this is as bad as I’ve seen it,” Ben Lobo said of the mental health of his students at Schaumburg High School.
Susan Resko, president and CEO of the Josselyn Center, a community mental health center north of Chicago, said the pandemic was “like a match to fuel.”
Before March 2020, the nonprofit was receiving about 50 new customers per month, Resko said. That number is now 250, and two-thirds are children or young adults. The organization has hired 70 therapists in the past year and has received an influx of mental health applications from local schools.
Some critics of the new Illinois law note that it excludes families who do not have easy access to childcare. And a lack of data from some schools means officials don’t know if the policy is being applied.
The Illinois State Board of Education does not require schools to report how many students are absent in the field of mental health. KHN reached out to the 10 largest school districts in Illinois looking for that data. Six did not respond (the districts in Elgin, Aurora, Algonquin, Oswego, Romeoville, and Schaumburg), and three said they either didn’t track that number (Chicago) or couldn’t release it (Rockford and Naperville).
School officials in Plainfield, Illinois — a city about 55 miles southwest of Chicago whose district has more than 25,000 enrollments — said 3,703 students took a total of 6,237 mental health days from the beginning of January through the end of the school year. That means that almost 15% of students use an average of 1.7 days per student. Officials also noted that 123 of those days were used on the last day of school before the summer break.
The community had tried to provide more services to students even before the pandemic hit. In 2019, Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 added 20 social workers after data showed that hospitalizations of any kind among students more than doubled in the past five years. That kind of staffing “just doesn’t happen in education,” said Tim Albores, the district’s director of student facilities.
No money, no staff
Under the new state policy, after students are absent for a second time on mental health grounds, district officials must refer them to the “appropriate school support staff.” But many schools can’t afford the kinds of services Plainfield offers, education officials say, and in rural areas they sometimes struggle to find people to fill those jobs.
It is planned that Chicago will have a social worker in each of its more than 600 schools by 2024. School social workers there often spend most of their time with students who receive special education dictated by an individualized education program, or IEP.
“There’s a knock on my door all day long. And I have to choose – am I going to reschedule my IEP services, or am I going to help a student going through a crisis like this one?” said Mary Difino, a social worker at Brian Piccolo Elementary Specialty School on Chicago’s West Side. “In the neighborhood I work in, there’s a lot of trauma, there’s a lot of community violence, there’s a lot of death and hardship.”
Fourteen-year-old Heaven Draper, an eighth-grader with Brian Piccolo, said she used two mental health days: one to take a break from a chaotic classroom environment — she said she sometimes felt more like a teacher than a student. – and another to de-stress from the pressure of applying and testing for high schools in the city. “This is our first year back from quarantine,” she said. “It has become overwhelming at times.”
Her classmate Ariyonnah Brown, 14, said she took a day to defuse a situation with another student. She said she would like to see more awareness of mental health among adults, especially in communities of color like hers.
“Parents need to be educated,” said Sheila Blanco, 57, a Chicago food distribution buyer whose 14-year-old daughter, Carli, died by suicide in 2017. “So many parents don’t know what resources are, and even if there are resources, to help the child or help them help the child.”
Anna Sanderson, a junior from Schaumburg High School, said she believes the policy is a good idea, just not for her. “If I miss a day because I’m overwhelmed or not feeling well mentally, I feel like if I go back I’ll only be worse,” said the 17-year-old. ‘I have to catch up on assignments and tests and fall behind in my lessons.’
But she said she hopes it’s a sign of increased support for students’ mental health. She said schools sometimes fail to recognize student suicides or provide counseling that goes far beyond education.
“I feel like we get fired a lot,” she said.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis text line by texting HOME to 741741.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. It is an editorially independent work program of Kaiser Family Foundation.