Suicides in Illinois are on the rise. Last year, they accounted for 11.5 deaths per 100,000 people. While that’s below the national average, it marks the highest percentage statewide in the past decade. A newly introduced bill would give Illinois students time off from school to seek out the assistance they need to address their mental health issues.
Legislation introduced by Chicago Democratic state Sen. Rob Martwick would grant public school students up to five excused absences from class in order to allow them to “take care of their mental health, just like they would be with a broken bone or the flu.”
“It just is acknowledging the fact that as we have a greater and greater understanding of the challenges that everyone faces in society and mental health, but especially young children – we’ve seen increases in suicide rates, problems with bullying either physically or on social media – and we see that a lot of children are having trouble coping with that,” Martwick said.
“So this says to them, that when children need a break to address that, we should encourage that.”
The point, Martwick said, is to give students the time they may need to seek out help if they’re struggling with bullying or mental health-related issues.
Martwick cited a 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that the national suicide rate among those aged 10-24 jumped by more than 50% between 2007 (6.8 suicides per 100,000 people) and 2017 (10.6). According to the study, the suicide rate surpassed and continued to outgrow the homicide rate for that age group almost every year between 2011 and 2017.
“It is about taking that excused absence to take care of yourself so that you’re a healthy, productive student,” he said. “When everyone is healthy and participating, then the class as a whole rises.”
Illinois won’t be the first state to take this step – over the past two years both Oregon and Utah have made similar exceptions for excused absences. But Illinois has recently faced unique issues relating to how schools deal with student mental health – specifically regarding the practice of placing kids in isolation rooms.
Martwick said these mental health days could be used as a less extreme intervention for students to get the help they need.
“Here’s another thing we should add to that discussion because it shouldn’t be just when a kid gets put in an isolation room that we should be addressing their mental health problems,” he said. “Maybe it should be before they get to that point, right?”
“We’re sort of acknowledging everyone has challenges,” he added, “… and my hope would be not that these become extra days off for kids to play video games, but that if they’re having challenges with bullying or mental health that they have the ability to seek out help, whatever that form may be in, to address those problems so they can get back to school and be a productive student.”
The bill would take effect for K-12 students statewide and also mandates that kids who miss class time due to a mental health day be given an opportunity to make up any school work missed during their absence.
But there are questions about how exactly it would work.
Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of the Center for Childhood Resilience, said the bill lacks a solid plan for implementation: How would a school respond to a student’s absence? Would a school nurse be notified? Would a referral system be in place for mental health services? And if so, who would provide those services?
“What we’ve seen in our state sometimes is that we implement a policy without thinking through all of the implementation issues,” Cicchetti said. “How do we move from a concept that makes sense to making it actually happen?”
Pam Epley, associate clinical professor at the Erikson Institute, said it’s too soon to have concerns. While some of the details are unclear, she said the bill legitimizes the need for mental health resources.
“I think it makes complete sense that we start seeing mental health difficulties as valid reasons for someone to stay outside of school and get support,” Epley said.
Since its introduction in January, the bill has picked up more than a dozen co-sponsors. Though the proposal is light on specifics at this point, Martwick hopes the idea behind the legislation can add to the ongoing conversation around student mental health.
“If we decide to move forward with this bill, then we will go with that, if it becomes part of an omnibus (bill) to address these issues, I’m fine with that,” he said. “It’s about advancing the discussion.”
Note: This story was first published on Feb. 5. It has been updated.