SCAMBURG, Ill. – Every time Linea Sorensen leaves with her four-year-old girlfriend, the Marines, for six months, the junior high school 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 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 – 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.
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 prevention mindset and integrate mental health promotion into school from an early age, I see this as very important in helping to reduce the treatment needs we see in young people,” said Tamara Mendelson, 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 them to seeing abuse and neglect.
“I’ve been a teacher for 19 years, and it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen,” Ben Lobo said of the mental health of his students at Scamburg High School.
The epidemic is “like a match for 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 young adults. 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 think it excludes families without 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 disclose how many Illinois State Board of Education students are receiving mental health care. 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, Illinois – a town 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 wanted 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. The expansion of such staff does not just happen in the field of education, says Tim Alborz, the district director of student services.
Under the state’s new policy, district officials must refer students to their “appropriate school support staff” after a second mental health-related absence. 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.
“There was a 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 days of mental health: to take a break from a chaotic classroom environment – he said he sometimes felt more like a teacher than a student – and the other at a city high school. To relieve stress from application and test stress. “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 awareness of mental health among adults, especially in communities of color like hers.
“Parents need to be educated,” said Sheila Blanco, 57, a food delivery buyer 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 the child 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 not feeling overwhelmed or emotionally good, I think when I go back, I’ll just get worse,” the 17-year-old said. “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’ suicides or provide counseling outside of education.
“I think we get fired a lot of the time,” he said.
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