We want school to be an amazing and magical place where students can learn, feel safe, and leave with experiences they’ll reflect on for the rest of their lives. There are challenges too, of course, and kids have always had to find ways to navigate them. Things are more complicated now, and many schools are considering student mental health days.
Most of us can remember tough moments in our own childhoods. Those school years are filled with moments of elation, confusion, joy, and pain. Today’s students aren’t just focusing on passing tests, making the team, or impressing a crush. They’re worried about big things like school shootings and the pandemic. Are we doing everything we can to support them?
As schools reopen, experts predict kids will need help
“Historically, our busiest times of the year are a couple of weeks into the school year, perhaps the end of September, beginning of October,” says Dr. Richard Martini, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Utah. “These are times where you really begin to identify kids that are struggling—the schools begin to identify them.”
If this is common, why are mental health professionals bracing for an influx of students needing help? The pandemic has made everything worse. Last year, there was a 24 percent increase in kids needing mental health emergency visits. “It was about this time last year that hospitals started raising red flags, like ‘we are being overrun in the [emergency department],’” says Amy Knight, president of the Children’s Hospital Association. “And it hasn’t really subsided.”
Many kids are excited to go back to school, but they’re also showing signs of anxiety. As Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar at Nationwide Children’s Hospital explains, the sources of anxiety vary by age group. Here’s what mental health professionals are seeing:
- Younger kids are worried about being separated from their families/caregivers, getting sick, or their parents getting sick.
- Teens are worried about adapting to in-person learning full-time and socializing with their peers again.
- As the numbers improved, kids had hope. They thought things could be normal. When the cases started rising again, the uncertainty caused anger, frustration, and stress.
- Students with certain risk factors are most vulnerable to anxiety right now.
- Kids in communities of color have experienced disproportionate levels of trauma due to the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.
The one silver lining? Schools and teachers have been proactively seeking guidance and professional development from mental health experts. At the same time, children’s hospitals have been adding resources in an effort to meet the need.
Illinois schools give mental health days to students
Starting in January, schools in Ill. will give kids five excused mental health days per academic year to cope with the pandemic. Over the summer, a new bill was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzer to allow students to take a day off without having to provide a doctor’s note. They’ll also be given the opportunity to make up any work they missed on their day off.
According to the bill, students won’t be left on their own if they’re struggling. After requesting a second mental health day, a school counselor will reach out to their family. The student may also be referred to a mental health professional. If kids need more than two mental health days, a conversation with an adult or mental health provider will be necessary.
State Rep. Barbara Hernandez co-sponsored the bill and is excited about being able to help students who need support. “Having this now for all students across the state will be really beneficial, especially with what’s going on with COVID,” she said. “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.”
Illinois is not the first or only state to offer student mental health days. Over the last two years, Ariz., Colo., Conn., Ill., Maine, Nev., Ore., and Va. have also passed similar bills.
Do teachers think schools should offer student mental health days?
We polled our own community of teachers to find out what they think. While some mentioned that teachers need mental health days as well, most were very enthusiastic about this being available to kids. Here are some of the comments:
“Yes, absolutely! Why is this even a question?” —Michaela K.
“Mental health IS health, so YES!” —Lindsay W.
“That’s awesome! Mental health is more important than getting good grades. If we focus on mental health, grades will follow 😊” —Molly A.
“As long as the burden is not placed on the educators to reteach what the students miss while being out 🤷♀️” —Terri Y.
“Students today are under so much pressure to be______. They need 5 days just to be kids. I’m in.” —Cynthia R.
“Absolutely. We get personal days, so should students. They get overwhelmed too.” —Rebecca S.
“Yes, especially in the hybrid & virtual learning world. And I can understand why it’s beneficial in Chicago, where there are various other environmental factors to consider as to why this could help as well.” —Kristen S.
“Honestly, I wished they had something like this when I was in school. Even with jobs, because my last job fired me because of my mental health.” —Missy C.
“Yes!!! Apart from the pandemic itself, many of my students are dealing with economic and social difficulties stemming from the pandemic.” —Celine N.
“Growing up w/ ADHD, I had to have at least one day out of the school year for mental health wellness. Luckily, my mom understood what “one of those days” looked like and allowed me to stay home from school. Never abused the system, and always felt more productive on my days back. I think this is great 👍” —Sarah K.