This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.
This story was produced as part of the Medill Media Teens journalism program for Chicago Public School students at Northwestern University. The writer worked under the mentorship of Medill graduate Anandita Bhalerao.
With working 25 hours a week at her minimum wage job at an ice cream shop, juggling a stressful workload with AP and honors classes, and dealing with anxiety, sometimes Jones College Prep sophomore Meghan Cuddy just needs a break.
“I feel depressed and miserable a lot of the time in my life,” said Cuddy. “ When I don’t go to school or specific classes, I’m definitely more upbeat than I would typically be. A lot of my misery is derived from specific classes like my math class.”
Like other students in Illinois, Cuddy is now able to take up to five excused mental health days, after a new law went into effect at the beginning of the calendar year. The law came at a critical time as youth are experiencing the mental effects of the pandemic and rising violence in Chicago.
But there are indications that communication about the law has been inconsistent across schools.
“I’ve seen people talk about it. It seems like there’s still some confusion about how it works,” said Naima Roberts, a senior board member of Whitney Young High School’s mental health club. “I think maybe one of my friends brought it up over the summer that this law was coming. And then I looked it up on my own and did some Googling and tried to figure out what it was.”
It is unknown how many students in Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third largest district, have taken mental health days. The district doesn’t track them. While students have expressed appreciation for the law, there is some skepticism about the scope of its impact.
“I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I’ll give you that. I don’t know what’s going to be different because of it,” said Emil G. Hirsch Metropolitan High School counselor Jennelle Robin.
School counselors have seen firsthand the toll the pandemic has taken on their students. In Chicago, 44% of young children experienced an increase in mental or behavioral health symptoms during the pandemic, according to a report by the Lurie Children’s Hospital.
“I mean we’ve had kids whose parents die, relatives die. And our country does need to increase awareness. Our youth in the city have a lot of trauma,” Robin said.
Those in the mental health field aren’t shocked by the data.
“It’s not a surprise to any of us to know that the combination of stress, uncertainty, loss, grief, and change of the last few years combined with the existing stressors of being a teen or a young adult, has contributed to a really significantly rising mental health need,” said Rachel Bhagwat, director of policy at National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago.
CPS has extended support to students by expanding “care teams” at schools to aid struggling students. And with the increase in gun violence in the city, the district has grown its anti-violence program, which connects students in need to therapy and mentors.
The law recognizes mental or behavioral problems as a “student illness” and a “valid cause for absence,” according to an email statement by Chicago Public Schools. If a student takes a second mental health day, their school may decide to refer the student to “appropriate support personnel,” such as a counselor or psychologist.
“Anybody can take the days when they call in their absences. They just say they are taking a mental health day and that’s it. No questions asked,” said James Nicklas, a counselor at Taft High School.
Illinois is among several states that have recently passed legislation supporting the mental health of students, according to The New York Times. In the past two years, Colorado, Connecticut, Arizona, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington have enacted measures that provide students with excused mental health days. Illinois has also passed a bill allowing teachers to take sick days for mental health-related reasons.
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