The view of the new District 97 office building in October 13, 2016.

Local school officials say that a new state law allowing students to have five excused mental health days each school year is helping strengthen the conversations surrounding social and emotional wellness in and outside the classrooms. 

Under the new law, students in Illinois public schools who are between the ages of 6 and 17 can now take up to five excused mental health days without a medical note. Students who are absent will also be given a chance to make up missed schoolwork. Backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the new law, which went into effect earlier this month, came on the heels of the COVID pandemic’s two-year anniversary. Throughout the pandemic, families, education leaders and lawmakers statewide have worked to highlight the stressors impacting children and teens, including social isolation, school closures and anxiety about contracting the novel coronavirus. 

“One of the biggest gains will be that [the new law] normalizes mental health needs, or maybe, for some people, for themselves, [it will] legitimize the need for a mental health day,” said Abby Berman, a social worker at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park. 

Early on in the pandemic, from March 2020 to October 2020, hospitals across the nation saw the number of mental health visits by children aged 5 to 11 years old rise to 24% and 31% for older children and teens between 12 and 17 years old, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported.

Other research showed that parents noticed their young children’s behavior changed drastically during the pandemic and became more irritable, fearful or clingy. Shortly after the pandemic began, one nonprofit, the America’s Promise Alliance, surveyed nearly 3,300 teens and found that 30% of them were “unhappy” or “depressed” and became increasingly worried about “having their basic needs met.” Overall, researchers said the pandemic exacerbated issues of mental health, especially for students of color or those who belong to the LGBTQ+ community. 

Berman said school officials at Brooks and across Oak Park District 97 had been privy to their students’ mental health needs and tried to build up their resources and support system long before the COVID-19 pandemic started. The district currently has a total of 20 social workers, one of whom joined the team last year, Berman said. During the pandemic, D97 also partnered with DePaul University and the Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township and launched a series of community talks, encouraging conversations around coping with anxiety, understanding depression or transitioning back to in-person learning. 

When schools fully reopened last fall for in-person learning, Berman recalled how she and her colleagues saw students struggling with being back in the classroom. There were some students who were adjusting to sitting in a classroom surrounded by their peers, while others were trying to get accustomed to being around teachers and staff at school, instead of their families at home, she said.  

“The isolation was really hard for all of us. Socialization is such an important part of the child’s experience,” Berman said. “… It took a long time for them to rework that muscle and get back into the groove of like ‘I’m in school all day. If something is stressful, I have to deal with it head on. I have to ask for help.’” 

Reflecting on the past two years of the pandemic, Berman believed that the new law is a benefit and hopes people will finally recognize that mental health is a “real thing, a real health concern that we should all take seriously.” 

Karin Sullivan, district spokeswoman at Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, echoed Berman’s sentiments.  

“The passage of this law affirms the idea that mental health is as important to overall wellness as physical health,” Sullivan wrote in an email to Wednesday Journal. “Allowing students the time to attend to their mental well-being – which for many has been very negatively affected by the pandemic – is an important and very public step toward removing the stigma that can surround issues of mental health.” 

Join the discussion on social media!