PLAINFIELD, Ill. - A new state law is giving public school students five mental health days per academic year. It comes at a good time when being a student during a pandemic has proven stressful.
In suburban Plainfield’s School District 202, several students have already taken advantage.
"I lost a lot of friends. Honestly, there's some people that I see now that I was best friends with before COVID. And it's just like, we're total strangers," said Plainfield North senior Hayley Krawisz.
Krawisz has struggled with anxiety and depression for years, then COVID-19 struck and she and many others felt isolated. Her school social worker went from seeing five to six students per week to now 10 to 15.
"Now with the pandemic? We're seeing a lot more ‘Am I safe? Am I safe during the school day? Am I going to get sick?’ In addition to just wanting to do well academically, they want to stay healthy," said Kassi Foleno, District 202 social worker.
Foleno says she's grateful that students now have access to five mental health days per year. The new state law applies to all public school students, 7-years-old and up.
"They don't really have to explain to us why they're taking them. They can just take them and they take that time, I hope to, you know, de-stress, process a little, reset and then come back into the building," said Foleno.
It is an honor system, but if kids take two consecutive mental health days, social workers – like Foleno – will check in.
The Plainfield school district refocused efforts on student mental health three years ago, when they realized many students were struggling and unable to focus.
"We had a 4.7 decrease in enrollment and 110% increase in hospitalizations around that time," said Tim Albores, Director of student services for District 202.
They hired 20 additional social workers and now screen all middle and high school kids, using a survey with matter-of-fact questions.
"’Have you ever in your entire life ever thought about committing suicide?’ We ask very direct questions. There's also an educational component that's connected to that where they're learning how to make sure that they're telling trusted adults when they or their friends are having thoughts of suicide," said Albores.
He says these preventative measures have saved lives by stopping students from harming themselves.
The new mental health days are not a "free pass" and students will have to make up the work, which Hayley says might prevent kids from using the days.
Still, she and her mom are grateful that lawmakers are acknowledging that even resilient kids can struggle.
"Having that in place, is showing that they are recognizing that, you know, we are kind of stressed at some times," said Krawisz.
"They think that kids can just get over it maybe, or just talk to your parent or you know, figure it out. Now, I think they're realizing that they actually need help, they really do," said Christy Krawisz, Hayley’s mom.