But while these mental health days will ensure that students get more time off to care for themselves after a rough couple of years, they still count as absences at a time when chronic absenteeism is on the rise.
Though some students might know about the law, there has been limited conversation from teachers or administration in some schools.
“Teachers haven’t necessarily announced it, but I think most students know about it,” said Ella Schafer, a junior at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School and president of the Journaling for Mental Health Club.
Bhagwat, of National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, said the law’s implementation can vary depending on the school.
“You can create a law, but how schools choose to implement them or at the level of seriousness they want to take that is up to them,” Bhagwat said. “I know that something can be legal but whether it is accepted or whether it’s taboo in work environments can make a difference.”
While the law allows students to make up any schoolwork they missed, many are still afraid of taking a mental health day for fear of falling behind.
“I would hope that schools would celebrate their students for taking care of their well-being and not create any unnecessary barriers or stress around doing that but I also understand that it is a complicated issue in many schools,” Bhagwat said.
Some students have expressed appreciation for the law’s role in helping to battle the notion that mental health is a taboo topic.
“I had been taking mental health days without them being categorized as mental health days before this, but I think it’s good even if it’s just to decrease the stigma of mental health in school,” said Ellie Ceraso, a sophomore at Jones College Prep High School.
In some schools, the law has started conversations about mental wellness and self-care. Students now have another resource to utilize to prioritize their mental health when needed.
“I know that I’ve really appreciated hearing students say like ‘oh, I’m looking forward to taking a mental health day on this day’ and cultural shifts that I feel like are happening that maybe I didn’t notice before,” said Naima Roberts. “I’m noticing now that students have the language to describe them taking care of their mental health, which I think is cool. And I really look forward to more school policies catching up with these shifts.”
Some students feel that the law has helped parents understand mental health days and students’ need for them.
“Once CPS said it was okay to take mental health days, my parents became okay with that,” said Meghan Cuddy, the Jones College Prep sophomore. “Whereas before they would not have been at all okay with me taking a day off just to take a day off, but now they give me my allotted five.”
Parental permission is not the only reason students are not taking mental health days; stress has increased in students as 81% of teens have experienced greater stress in schooling due to the pandemic, according to the American Psychological Association. While students take mental health days for a variety of personal reasons, some use them as a day to get caught up on schoolwork when they’re feeling worn out.
“I feel like one of the goals is to push forward this idea that sometimes you need a break whether it’s because of chronic mental health issues or its because just at this moment, I’m feeling overwhelmed,” said Ellie Cesaro.
In addition, some – like Taft counselor James Nicklas – find the law’s scope to be limited.
“I feel like there’s so much stress for students that I think something needs to be done more,” said Nicklas. “Something needs to change in schools, not just get a day off.”
Meghan Cuddy agrees: “I don’t know many people who say their mental health is fixed because they took a mental health day. So while I think they could be good, I think we need to have serious intervention to help kids with their mental health because it’s a really big problem; it’s an epidemic.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.
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