Illinois passes bill allowing students up to five excused mental health days

Lafayette community members reflect on effects bill would have if implemented in Rockwood


Amber Yin

On the Sept. 24 senior night football game against Hazelwood West, students cheer in Lafayette’s student section. The theme for the game was “green-out” in support of mental health awareness. Oct. 10 is World Mental Health Day.

Makayla Archambeault

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that starting in April 2020, hospitals saw an increase of 31% in mental health-related emergency visits for kids aged 12-17 years old compared to 2019. As a result of this increase, among other reasons, Illinois recently passed a bill to address the rising mental health crisis.

Beginning in January, students between the ages of 7 and 17 in Illinois will be able to take up to five excused mental health days without a doctor’s note. According to the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the school will schedule a meeting with the student, parents and school counselor if the student takes a second day off to discuss the student’s situation and advise professional involvement if needed.

And Illinois isn’t the only state to pass such a law, according to the New York Times, as Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Virginia have passed similar bills.

“This is a way of starting a conversation, starting to reach out to an adult and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on with me, can you please help me?’,” Illinois State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, who co-sponsored the bill, said. “It’s something that we really need in our community and for our students. Because of COVID and because of other issues around our world, it’s hard growing up, that’s for sure.”

Hernandez believes the bill would have been implemented anyways, but the COVID-19 pandemic helped the bill get through.

“The number of suicides went up, the number of abuse increased, substance abuse has increased, so it’s a lot that the students are going through right now that before, teachers would have been able to see and try to help out the student,” she said.

If a similar law were to be passed in Missouri and implemented at Lafayette, guidance counselor Anne Tichacek believes the benefits would outweigh potential consequences.

“You’re gonna have students that are trying to play hooky for the day but it’s not for them. If we were to implement something like this it would be for those students who truly need it,” Tichacek said.

While Tichacek acknowledges that everyone needs a break sometimes, she also hopes that students realize some setbacks.

“Being alone with your thoughts isn’t always the best place to be, sometimes to break out of the cycle you need to break yourself from that mold. You need to force yourself to get out and do things that don’t sound all that appealing sometimes because otherwise you start to withdraw more and might start to isolate more and that can be detrimental to your mental health,” she said. “On the surface, I think it would be good for students but I’m not necessarily aware of any research that shows avoiding a situation is helpful. So if a student is struggling in school because of their mental health or it’s impacting their school in any way, avoiding the situation wouldn’t be the best idea. It does have its pros and cons.”

Currently, all Lafayette students are required to complete a semester-long Health class, which covers mental health.

“We talk about all of the mental health illnesses and we bring in guest speakers. In the past we’ve brought in ones from [Coalition for Mental Health] (CHADS), we’ve already had one that talked about self-harm and warning signs of depression and went over suicide,” health teacher Ashley Lewis said. “There’s another part of CHADS that talks more focused on depression and suicide. We do a mental health brochure. The kids pick a mental health illness and define it, talk about symptoms, treatments and all that stuff.”

You have to reset, you have to get a clean mindset. If you need to step away from something then you need to take care of yourself, that’s what’s most important.”

— health teacher Ashley Lewis

Lewis acknowledges that some students may take advantage of the implementation of such a bill, but agrees with Tichacek in that the negative effects would be greatly outweighed by the positive impact it would have for students that need it.

“Honestly, I think that it’s a great idea. [We] get 10 sick days and two personal days as teachers and when I was coaching, I would end the season and take a mental health day and I think kids should be doing it too,” Lewis said. “You have to reset, you have to get a clean mindset. If you need to step away from something then you need to take care of yourself, that’s what’s most important. I tell my students that it’s healthy to go see a counselor or a therapist and you should be going to see them when you’re well so that they can see that and then they can help you when you’re not.”

Senior Lena Niblett also believes taking mental health days can prove beneficial to students in high school as well as later in life. 

“High school is all about teaching kids how to fend for themselves and how to create their own schedule and if a kid decides that that day they’re gonna skip school that’s their natural consequence that they’re gonna have to make up for that. In the real world, you get sick days, sometimes you get paid sick days, you get personal time off, most companies give you two weeks of vacation days so technically you do get time off the same way you get time off at school, it’s just at school, they tell you when you’re taking your break. In a career, you have to decide for yourself when you’re taking your two weeks of vacation, so it’s the same thing, it’s five days versus two weeks,” Niblett said.

She also said if a student truly needs a day off, it’s more important to help them with an excused absence as opposed to an unexcused absence. She feels like currently, students believe they can’t be honest about their need for mental health days.

“At the moment, students have to lie. They have to say, ‘I’m going to a wedding’, ‘I’m sick’ or ‘I have a doctor’s appointment’ because they aren’t able to just say ‘I need to take the day off’. So, by showing them that they have that resource, they can see that they can talk about it because [the school] is allowing them to do it,” Niblett said. “Some parents are nicer than others and will excuse their kid and some parents won’t. When the parents don’t, those kids suffer and can lose scholarships and can lose their A+ program seat because of those unexcused absences.”

However, administrators said if a parent calls in for a student, no matter the reason, the student will be excused from classes. Principal Karen Calcaterra hopes students will work with their parents and the school to communicate when they need a mental health day.

“I always want our kids, parents and if they need us, at school to work together to best take care of the mental health and wellness of all of our students. I love working in a high school and I fully understand that high school students have the ability to know when they’ve hit a stress level and I hope that they are working with their parents and communicating with us if they just need a break and need to take some time to decompress and destress and just take good care of themselves. I always want our kids to be able to do that. The hard part is you have to know yourself. We don’t have a working crystal ball, I wish we did. I fully support any student who needs to take time to take care of themselves,” Calcaterra said.

While concern about the number of mental health days students are allowed to take was considered with the passing of the bill, Niblett believes five days is a good number for students to have available.

“I think five days is enough–it’s a full week of school in total you’re missing so I think if it’s any more than that you can start to see a shift in their grades. But it all depends on your personal need. There have been days where I’d rather miss a test and stress about it over the weekend and make it up on Monday than go to school on that Friday,” she said.

Niblett is also involved in a group called Mission Mental Health Awareness (Mission MHA) at Lafayette and has met with Tichacek to discuss ways the school can also integrate the mental health conversation more intimately at school. 

While the group is still in the early planning stages of the project, one of its goals is to get more students trained in mental health first aid through Kids Under Twenty One (KUTO).

“We’re talking about getting 100 people trained on the KUTO mental health crisis intervention. Those people would be selected through different organizations, clubs and sports in our community. [For example], we would have team captains come in and they would be trained and spread the message to people on their team and be the anchor for their team. Since people look up to their leaders, the discussion of mental health would be further integrated into everyday life because it’s way easier to go to a peer than it is to go to a teacher about your struggles,” Niblett said.