Giles Bruce / Kaiser Health News
Linia Sorensen gets into a frenzy whenever her four-year-old girlfriend leaves the Marines for six months, and the high school junior has trouble concentrating on her class work.
“I’m the kind of person who struggles a bit with my mental health,” said the 17-year-old, who attended school in Scamberg, Ill., A suburb of about 77,000 people northwest of Chicago. “When you’re at school and not quite mentally there, it seems like you don’t really understand anything.”
Now Illinois is offering Sorensen and students like him a new option for dealing with poor mental health. The state allows five excuses for absenteeism per school year due to the mental health of K-12 students in public schools, another example of the growing recognition among lawmakers that mental and physical health are intertwined. The new policy, which went into effect in early 2022, was passed unanimously by both houses of the state legislature.
But such innovative policies are, in many ways, a half-step towards addressing the crisis of adolescent mental health that has been highlighted and enhanced by the educational barriers caused by the epidemic. There is a shortage of therapists in many parts of the country who can work with students to address 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 epidemic began. Polling by the National Center for Education Statistics also found that only 56% of schools said they effectively provided mental health services to all students in need, and only 41% said they hired new staff to help meet students’ mental health needs.
According to official figures, about half of the nation lives in a designated mental health care deficit area, and an estimated 7,550 new professionals are needed to fill that gap nationwide. Even in places where the number of mental health professionals is high, they often do not take out public insurance, which makes them accessible to many children.
In other states where lawmakers have enacted policies that allow students to take mental health days off – including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Virginia – the lack of services for young people is a concern.
Schools in Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Utah, and Washington, D.C. have sought to bridge the gap through less expensive solutions such as classroom meditation, meditation rooms, and socio-emotional learning. In recent months conservative lawmakers have become the target of curricula.
The biggest need is mental health
In the Mental Health 2020 survey of the largest mental health needs of young people in America, the top response among 14- to 18-year-olds was access to mental health professionals and the absence of mental health or breaks as part of school or work.
“As much as we can shift to a resilience mentality and integrate mental health promotion into school from an early age, I see that it is very important to help reduce the need for treatment that we see in young people,” said Tamar Mendelssohn, director. Adolescent Health Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Illinois education officials and mental health experts say the Mental Health Day policy is a good start to mitigating a youth mental health crisis that grew in the era of school shootings and cyber bullying and then exploded during the epidemic. The move is another indication that schools are increasingly relying on students to meet their social needs, from feeding, dressing and vaccinating students to seeing abuse and neglect.
“I’ve been a teacher for 19 years, and it’s as bad as I’ve seen it,” Ben Lobo told Scamburg High School about the mental health of his students.
The epidemic is “like putting a match on fuel,” said Susan Resco, president and CEO of the Jocelyn Center, a community mental health center north of Chicago.
As of March 2020, the nonprofit has received about 50 new clients a month, Resco said. That number is now 250, and two-thirds are children or adolescents. The agency hired 70 therapists last year and received numerous requests for mental health counseling services from local schools.
Some critics of the new Illinois law feel that it excludes families who do not have access to childcare. And the lack of information from some schools means officials don’t know if the policy is being used.
Schools are not required to report to the Illinois State Board of Education on how many students are taking mental health absences. KHN contacted the 10 largest school districts in Illinois for that information. Six did not respond (Elgin, Aurora, Algonquin, Oswego, Romeoville and Scamburg districts), and three said they either did not track that number (Chicago) or could not disclose it (Rockford and Naperville).
School officials in Plainfield, Ill – a city about 35 miles southwest of Chicago with more than 25,000 enrollments in the district – said 3,703 students took 6,237 mental health days from the beginning of January to the end of the school year. This means that about 15% of student organizations used an average of 1.7 days per student. Officials also noted that 123 days were used on the last day of school before the summer holidays.
Even before the epidemic hit, the community tried to provide more services to students. In 2019, after Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 added 20 social workers, data showed that any type of overnight hospitalization among students had more than doubled in the previous five years. Expansion of such staff does not just happen in education, says Tim Alborz, District Director of Student Services.
No money, no staff
Under the state’s new policy, after students have a second mental health-related absence, district officials must refer them to “appropriate school support staff.” But many schools can’t afford the kind of services Plainfield offers, education officials say, and in rural areas they sometimes have trouble finding people to fill those jobs.
Chicago is not set to have one social worker in every 600 schools by 2024. There, school social workers often spend most of their time on students who receive a special education program, or special education services as determined by the IEP.
“I have to knock on my door all day. And I have to choose – am I going to reschedule my IEP services, or am I going to help a student who is in crisis right now?” Mary Defino, a social worker at Brian Piccolo Elementary Specialty School on the West Side of Chicago, said. “The neighborhood I work in has a lot of trauma, a lot of community violence, a lot of death and suffering.”
Fourteen-year-old Haven Draper, an eighth-grader at Brian Piccolo, said he used two mental health days: to take a break from a chaotic classroom environment – he said he sometimes felt more like a teacher than a student – and another city high. To reduce stress from applying for school and exams. “This is our first year back from separation personally,” he said. “It sometimes becomes irresistible.”
Her classmate Ariana Brown, 14, said she took a day off to deal with a situation with another student. She said she would like to see more mental health awareness among adults, especially in communities of color like hers.
“Parents need to be educated,” said Sheila Blanco, 57, a food delivery customer in Chicago, whose 14-year-old daughter, Carly, committed suicide in 2017. “Many parents do not know what resources are, and even if they do have resources, to help them or to help the child.”
Anna Sanderson, a junior at Scamburg High School, believes the policy is a good idea, not just for her. “If I miss a day because I’m overwhelmed or not feeling well, I think when I go back, I’ll be worse,” said the 17-year-old. “I have to do assignments and exams and stay behind in my class.”
But he said he hoped it was a sign of greater support for students’ mental health. He said schools sometimes fail to admit students to suicide or go beyond education and provide counseling.
“I think we get fired a lot of the time,” he said.
If you or someone you know is thinking of committing suicide, get in touch 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 Crisis text line Text HOME to 741741.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that creates in-depth journalism about health issues. It is an editorially independent operating program Kaiser Family Foundation.