Students across Illinois will be able to take up to five excused mental health days starting in January.
Under a bill signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last month, students who decide to take a mental health day will not be required to provide their school with a doctor's note and will be able to make up any work that was missed on their day off.
"Having this now for all students across the state will be really beneficial, especially with what's going on with COVID," State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, who co-sponsored the bill, told the Journal-Courier. "Many students feel stressed, and have developed anxiety and depression because they're not able to see teachers and friends, and may have lower grades due to remote learning."
The pandemic has placed unique strains on children, and as a new school year begins, child psychiatrists say they expect to see a surge of kids who need help.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between March and May of last year, hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in the number of mental health emergency visits by kids aged 5 to 11 years old, and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17.
"The younger school-age kids are more anxious about separation from their parents and caregivers," child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio, told NPR. "They're worried about getting sick," or their parents getting sick.
For teens, the challenges can be somewhat different, according to Ramtekkar. Most teenagers are struggling with social and academic anxiety, he said, as most are worried about socializing with their peers again and adapting to full-time in-person learning.
With the new law in Illinois, Hernandez says students will have more of an opportunity to get the care they need.
"I am really excited for this. I think it will help students, parents and teachers, and can help them understand what's going on in their students' lives," Hernandez said.
Once a student requests a second mental health day, a school counselor will reach out to their family and the student may be referred to get professional help, according to the bill.
Hernandez says that after students take their second mental health day, they should understand that a conversation with an adult is needed about whatever it is they're going through.
"Many students are going through a lot mentally and emotionally and they need support," Hernandez said.
School districts across Illinois will have until the end of the year to come up with a specific plan to execute the new law ahead of its effective date in January.
Illinois joins states such as Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Virginia that have passed similar bills over the last two years allowing students to be absent from school due to mental or behavioral health reasons, according to The New York Times.
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