SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — Linnea Sorensen gets into trouble every time her girlfriend of four years leaves for her six-month stints with the Marines, and the high schooler struggles to focus on her classwork.
“I’m someone who struggles a bit with my mental health,” said the 17-year-old, who attends school in this suburb of about 77,000 people northwest of Chicago. “When you’re in school and you’re not completely there mentally, it’s like you really don’t understand anything anyway.”
Now Illinois is giving Sorensen and students like her a new option to deal 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 closely intertwined. linked. The new policy, which took effect in early 2022, was passed unanimously by both houses of the state legislature.
But these new policies are, in many ways, a half-step toward addressing the adolescent mental health crisis that has been highlighted and exacerbated by the disruptions to education caused by the pandemic. Many parts of the country are in dire need of therapists who can work with students to address mental health issues.
Seventy percent of schools responding to a federal survey in April said more students had sought mental health services since the pandemic began. The National Center for Education Statistics survey also showed that only 56% of schools said they were effectively providing mental health services to all students in need and only 41% said they had hired new staff to help respond. students’ mental health needs.
According to government data, almost half of the country lives in a designated mental health worker shortage area, and around 7,550 new professionals are needed to fill this gap nationwide. Even in places where there are more mental health professionals, they often do not accept public insurance, making them inaccessible to many children.
In other states where lawmakers have implemented policies allowing students to take mental health days — including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Virginia – lack of services for youth remains a concern.
Schools in Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Utah and Washington, D.C. have tried to close the gap with less expensive solutions, such as classroom meditation, mindfulness rooms and social-emotional learning. The latter has become a target on the agenda of conservative lawmakers in recent months.
In a 2020 Mental Health America survey of young people’s greatest mental health needs, the top responses of 14- to 18-year-olds were access to mental health professionals and mental health absences or breaks in the setting. from school or work.
“The more we can shift to a preventative mindset and embed mental health promotion in schools from an early age, I consider that to be very important in helping to reduce the treatment needs that we see in young people,” said 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 the Mental Health Day policy is a good start to easing a youth mental health crisis that had developed during a time of shootings in schools and cyberbullying, then exploded during the pandemic. The move is another indication that schools are increasingly relied upon to meet the social needs of students, whether it be feeding, clothing, vaccinating or tracking abuse and neglect.
“I was a teacher for 19 years, and it’s as bad as I’ve seen,” Ben Lobo said of his students’ mental health 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 putting a match to fire.”
Prior to March 2020, the nonprofit was getting about 50 new clients per month, Resko said. That number is now 250, and two-thirds are children or young adults. The organization has hired 70 therapists over the past year and received an influx of requests for mental health counseling services from local schools.
Some critics of Illinois’ new law note that it excludes families who don’t have easy access to child care. And a lack of data from some schools means officials don’t know if the policy is being used.
The Illinois State Board of Education does not require schools to report the number of students who are absent for mental health reasons. KHN contacted the 10 largest school districts in Illinois to obtain this data. Six did not respond (districts based in Elgin, Aurora, Algonquin, Oswego, Romeoville and Schaumburg), and three said they did not track this number (Chicago) or could not publish it (Rockford and Naperville).
School officials in Plainfield, Illinois — a town about 35 miles southwest of Chicago whose district has more than 25,000 enrollment — said 3,703 students took 6,237 combined mental health days from the start. January at the end of the school year. This means that nearly 15% of students used 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 summer vacation.
The community was looking 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 overnight hospitalizations of any kind among students had more than doubled in the previous five years. This type of staff expansion “just doesn’t happen in education,” said Tim Albores, director of student services for the district.
Under the new state policy, after students have a second mental health-related absence, district officials are required to refer them to “appropriate school support personnel.” But many schools cannot afford the kinds of services offered by Plainfield, education officials say, and in rural areas they sometimes struggle to find people to fill those jobs.
Chicago does not plan to have a social worker in each of its more than 600 schools until 2024. School social workers often devote the bulk of their time there to students who receive special education services dictated by a school curriculum. Individualized Education, or IEP.
“There are knocks on my door all day. And I have to choose – will I reschedule my IEP services, or will I help a student going through a crisis like right now? said Mary Difino, social worker at Brian Piccolo Elementary Specialty School on Chicago’s West Side. “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.”
Heaven Draper, 14, an eighth grade student at 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 relax from the pressures of applying and testing for the city’s high schools. “This is our first year of coming back in person from quarantine,” she said. “It got overwhelming at times.”
Her classmate Ariyonnah Brown, 14, said she took a day off to help defuse 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 Chicago food distribution buyer whose 14-year-old daughter, Carli, killed herself in 2017. “So many parents, they don’t know what the resources, 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 thought politics was a good idea, but not for her. “If I miss a day because I’m overwhelmed or not feeling mentally well, I feel like coming back I’ll only be worse,” the 17-year-old said. “I’m going to have to catch up on homework and tests and be behind in my classes.”
But she said she hopes it’s a sign of greater support for student mental health. She said schools sometimes fail to acknowledge student suicides or provide guidance that goes far beyond education.
“I feel like we get fired a lot,” she said.
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