ISU students are leading the state’s mental health initiative

College students across Illinois can take time off for mental wellness, and Illinois State University Student Government is leading an initiative to make it happen.

Student body president Eduardo Monk said the idea is to give every college student across the state a handful of mental health days. Every student can choose a day off when they need it the most.

Mental health is unpredictable, Monk said. You don’t get to choose which days your mental health slows you down a bit.

The goal is to expand the state law granting five mental health days for K-12 students statewide to include universities. It’s outlined in a bill introduced by state Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, in October, though ISU’s student government has been working on the initiative since last year.

Monk said he and others understand there are still kinks to be found because K-12 is simpler than the taller version. At university, most classes meet two or three times a week, and some only once a week. There is also the issue of exams and major depending on labs or practical assessments.

There are going to be a lot of extra exemptions and regulations here, Monk said.

Pilot programs

Other schools are working together to figure out what might work. Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville is planning a pilot program for its version of mental health days.

SIUE and ISU consulted with Boston’s Northeastern University, which allows students two wellness days during the spring semester. Their program has been in place since 2022, although they advertise that it is still in the pilot phase.

Northeastern prohibits students from using wellness days on exam days, called blackout days.

SIUE student government board member Isabella Pruitt said Edwardsville plans to use Northeasterns framework. Ideally, students can go to their portal and request days off.

He said the SIUE program likely won’t be operational until fall 2024, but discussions are ongoing with the administration. Overall, Pruitt said people are generally supportive, just a little skeptical.

“I think everyone knows the importance of mental health and mental health for students, but I think the problem is that people don’t want to put in the effort to address these issues,” he said.

Flexibility for mental health

Andy Morgan is ISU’s associate vice president and dean of students. He also advises the Student Union [SGA].

Morgan pointed out that ISU has plenty of mental health services for students, but not all students are aware of them, more services don’t mean time off, and students go through the fall semester with only one break.

Some of our students are [putting] pedal to the metal for those 16 weeks, and they burn themselves out, he said.

Mental health days, Morgan said, can also encourage dialogue.

How can we better train our students to better communicate with their faculty? Morgan said. I think that’s one thing, but also just the faculty’s empathy and understanding when students need that time, and focusing on their own mental well-being is important.

Excused absences are currently allowed at ISU only due to the loss of a relative or military obligations due to government mandate. Professors are given discretion for any additional absences, including illness, hospitalization, or death due to a non-relative loss, all of which are considered unexcused by university policy.

Individual higher education institutions can also draw up their own guidelines. For example, Emma Beddow, a student at Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts and a member of the student government, said they were given a school-wide wellness day in the fall. Classes were canceled that day, and the college offered wellness-related activities as an added incentive.

That was one of the things that made me think, why don’t we just do this? Why don’t we pursue well-being? Beddow said of the wellness day.

Distressed, she added that the downside of a designated wellness day is that she can’t plan for her stress. He therefore said that he hopes for the flexibility offered in the law amendment.

Lake Land College Student Government President Madilyn Brummer said now is the time to get this legislation out in the open. Mattoon-based Lake Land is a recent partner.

Brummer called mental health a neutral issue. [Koehler, who filed the bill, is a Democrat.]

I think that’s where our main desire to speak only for the students and stand up for the students of our college comes from, he said.

According to Brummer, the concept is also useful for universities, as it can be used to monitor students’ mental health. How many days students leave can be an indicator.

Kerem Tasdan, a member of ISU’s student administration, said that he thinks the structure of the wellness days better prepares students for life outside the university. He said when looking for a job, people are encouraged to consider benefits such as sick days and vacation time. Mental health should be no different.

Such things are always discussed in our future, and it should be something that we already think about as familiar students, because we can choose when you need that time, he said.

If the legislation isn’t enacted, Tasdan said he still believes students will have an impact.

I hope at least it opens the eyes of people who may not have been as exposed to the problem, he said.

Monk, ISU’s student body president, said he was prepared to make concessions on the first questions.

We are ready to compromise everything with this, he said. We’re trying to pass state law here, so if they come to us and say, Hey, we’ll give you one day a year, we’ll happily take it.

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