Illinois Students Lead the Charge in Bringing Mental Health Days to College

Illinois already offers mental health days to K-12 students. Illinois State University Student Government Association members are trying to expand that option to the state's postsecondary institutions.
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Gillian Manning
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Gillian Manning serves on a volunteer-basis for the Society of Professional Journalists, assisting with educational and fundraising initiatives. She is a freelance writer with a BA in multimedia journalism from Florida Atlantic University. She’s writ...
Published on January 8, 2024
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Cameren Boatner is a diversity, equity, and inclusion editor at BestColleges. She's a Society of Professional Journalists award winner for her coverage of race, minorities, and Title IX. You can find her work in South Florida Gay News, MSN Money, Deb...
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Image Credit: Illinois State University Student Government Association

  • In 2022, Illinois implemented a bill providing K-12 students five excused mental health day absences per year, without requiring a doctor's note.
  • Illinois State University student Eduardo Monk created the state-encompassing Mental Health Days Coalition to help extend that bill to include students at Illinois colleges and universities.
  • A BestColleges study found that half of college students feel that their mental health has worsened since starting school.
  • Illinois would be the first state to require floating mental health days at colleges and universities throughout the state should the Mental Health Days Coalition achieve its goal.

Lauren Bounds was a senior in high school when Illinois implemented a new bill that offered five mental health days, not just sick days, to students in K-12 schools. And she was thankful for it. She left a bad three-year relationship and was in her final semester, ending one life chapter and beginning another.

Bounds, now a sophomore at Illinois State University (ISU) and senator with the school's Student Government Association (SGA), told BestColleges, I didn't have a grasp on who I was, and I didn't have time to grieve or process at all because school was just constantly going and going and going.

“I didn't have time. And if I took the time, to grieve and to process and to do what I needed to do for myself, I would have fallen behind on school — which I couldn't afford to — then I would have fallen behind on my activities, which would have compounded any sadness.

During that semester, she was able to use her five mental health days. While they didn't make her fully healed, they allowed her to take time for herself and find some relief.

Eduardo Monk, ISU's SGA president, has had his own struggles with mental health. Coming to college, he said he left behind an abusive home. Monk said he was diagnosed with major depression, major anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder from his childhood experiences.

Dealing with these issues and his resulting self-doubt was hard. But being able to go through therapy and find the medications that worked for him made a big difference. However, he said that's only because he was able to reach out for help.

Not everyone's experience will directly reflect Bounds' or Monk's, but they're far from being the only students grappling with their mental health. That's why they created the Mental Health Days Coalition — to bring mental health days under Illinois' K-12 bill to college students who need it, too.

College Students And Their Mental Health

Research from BestColleges shows that 46% of college students feel that their mental health is either fair or poor, with less than a quarter saying their mental health was very good or excellent. Almost half of the students surveyed said they wanted their schools to schedule mental health days.

Many students also expressed feeling mental health symptoms throughout the year like:

  • Stress (66%)
  • Anxiety (54%)
  • Self-doubt (50%)

To top it off, half said their mental health has worsened since starting college.

The Mental Health Days Coalition seeks to change that. With support from ISU, six other postsecondary institutions in Illinois, state Sen. Dave Koehler, and state Rep. Sharon Chung, Monk is advocating for mental health days at Illinois colleges and universities.

Monk and Bounds hope their work will help destigmatize mental health conversations and make it easier for students to slow down and get the help they need.

The Precedent Is Set

On Jan. 1, 2022, Illinois implemented Senate Bill 1577. The bill amended K-12 school attendance policies allowing students to take up to five excused mental or behavioral health days.

With mental health days from SB 1577, K-12 students can call out the same way they would if they woke up feeling physically ill. Mental health days don’t have to be scheduled ahead of time, nor do students need to provide a doctor’s note to support their absence. Students can also make up schoolwork and tests once they're back. If a student uses two or more mental health days in a row, their school will connect them to a counselor.

As SGA president, Monk could use his position to advocate for a similar policy at ISU. Now that Illinois has set this precedent, he sees SB1577 as a building block in creating statewide change and is using his power to pursue that instead.

When I stepped into this role as student body president, I saw that I get one year in this title. I get one year in this role — and I want to make the most out of it, Monk said.

I saw an opportunity ... to get mental health days passed for the state of Illinois. And if passed, Illinois will be the first state in the nation that would allow mental health days for university students. So we're gonna make our time worth it. We're gonna make our efforts worth it. We want to start, hopefully, a nationwide movement.

Some institutions like Northeastern University offer floating mental health days, but no state has them as a wide-reaching requirement. Other universities in the U.S. also offer mental health or wellness days. However, they are scheduled schoolwide. Schools like North Carolina State University, for example, schedule one Wellness Day per semester. Monk and Bounds note that this system has its limitations.

Not everybody's mental health is the same. It doesn't come on a set day. It doesn't follow a set schedule, Monk said.

Improving Success by Improving Mental Health

A focus on mental health isn't an excuse to neglect education, for Monk and Bounds. It sets them up to better succeed in their education as they prepare for their careers.

Taking advantage of mental health days in high school allowed Bounds to stay caught up in her classes and prevented her grief from pulling her too far down. For Monk, taking time for his mental health has allowed him to enjoy his time at school.

I had all this self-doubt and negative self-talk that really held me back. But now that I've been able to address a lot of those, sort them out, figure out where they're coming from, I'm just simply back to doing what I love, which is politics. I love talking. It's the reason I picked this industry. It really allowed me to actually get back to enjoying life, Monk said.

It's been argued that mental health days aren't a solution and that they're an easy resort in higher education. While Bounds acknowledges that mental health days aren't a cure-all, she says they're a preventative measure.

This is a preventative measure more than it is trying to clean up the damage after the fact, Bounds said. This isn't putting Band-Aids on bullet wounds. This is preventing the bullet wound from happening in the first place, or at least to the best of our capabilities.