Op/Ed: Illinois’ new mental health days won’t work at Payton

By Anna Calkins, Staff Writer

A new bill is allowing students to take up to 5 mental health days off starting in January. But what will this look like at Payton?

An outlet board for mental health awareness has fallen into disuse.

In August, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker signed a new bill that gives all students ages 7-17 the ability to take up to 5 fully excused mental health days this year. The bill will go into place in January, acting as a response to increased student mental health struggles. Other states including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, and Oregon have passed similar bills. The hope is that these days will compensate for student mental health struggles.

Emergency hospital visits for mental health increased about 27% since the start of the pandemic and lockdown, as a result of isolation and stress. The consequences of remote learning and separation from loved ones are clear in these statistics. The new bill will give students the opportunities to take time and care for themselves or seek professional care, although the mental health days don’t require any sort of doctor’s note. The bill also gives schools the power to refer students to psychiatrists after their second mental health day. Hopefully, this new option will benefit students statewide.

As great of an idea as this could be, it begs the question of who will actually use these days. First, we can ask ourselves- what is the cause of student stress? There are a couple of causes we can easily list off; standardized tests, grades, homework, and social life are all factors. Grades and test scores are especially significant stress factors at Payton, where a lot of weight is given to these things. Payton students are greatly inclined to evaluate their own self-worth by their academic success. Consequently, they pour hours into studying and homework. On the surface, it seems like these mental health days, then, would benefit us a lot.

However, taking days off is not part of Payton’s culture. It’s a big flaw, but it is undeniable. Students have always, and still do, regularly come to school even when sick or exhausted. It is not considered worth it to miss the day when so much happens in class, and skipping a day can cause you to fall behind for weeks. Thus, it’s likely that students won’t want to use these mental health days. Although the days are excused, the students that miss class won’t get to skip the new homework or get a pass out of a test. It only delays tests or builds up more work. Given Payton’s past of students working themselves through pain, it’s likely the mental health days won’t be used as much as they should be. Who is going to take the day off if it just means more stress in the next few days?

The problem is not with the mental health days- these are a great idea, and will likely help significantly in many cases. The problem is with Payton. As the rest of the state moves toward a more supportive system for student mental health, Payton should move with it, perhaps developing in-school stress management methods or some other method to more effectively support students. It’s hard to make this switch at Payton, where the idea that you should never take days off is so deeply entrenched. There’s a gradual change happening- more Payton clubs are focusing on mental health, and the school now has a school psychiatrist. With the addition of these days off, more progress will surely be made, if we can embrace them.

Hopefully, students will take mental health days when they need them and teachers will be understanding. In the meantime, we can all work to be supportive of one another, learn to take time off when we need it, and be forgiving with ourselves.

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