ISU students are leading a statewide mental health initiative

College students across Illinois can take a break for mental wellness, and Illinois State University’s student government is leading the initiative to make it happen.

Student Body president Eduardo Monk said the idea is to give every college student across the state a few days dedicated to mental health. Each student can opt to take a day off when they need it most.

Mental health is unpredictable, says Monk. You don’t get to choose which days your mental health will hold you back.

The goal is to expand the state law that provides five mental health days to K to 12 students statewide to include universities. That was laid out in a bill introduced by 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 recognize there are still kinks to work out, because K-12 is simpler than higher ed. In college, most classes meet two or three times a week, and some only meet once per week. There is also the issue of tests, and depending on the major, labs or practical tests.

There will be many additional exceptions and provisions to be made in it, Monk said.

Pilot programs

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

SIUE and ISU are consulting with Northeastern University in Boston to allow students two wellness days in the spring semester. Their program has been in place since 2022, though they are advertising it as still in the pilot phase.

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

Isabella Pruitt, an executive board member for the SIUE student government, said Edwardsville plans to use Northeastern’s framework. Ideally, students can go to their portal and request days off.

He said SIUE’s program likely won’t be operational until Fall 2024, but talks are ongoing with the administration. Overall, Pruitt said people are generally in favor, somewhat skeptical.

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

Adaptability for mental health

Andy Morgan is the assistant vice president and dean of students at ISU. He also advises the Student Government Association [SGA].

Morgan pointed out that ISU has an abundance of mental health services for students, but not all students are aware of them, adding services is not worth the time, and those students go through the Fall semester with only one break.

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

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

How can we better teach our students to communicate better with their teachers? said Morgan. I think that’s one thing, but only teachers who continue to have empathy and understanding when their students need that time and to focus on their own thoughts is important.

Excused absences are currently permitted at ISU only in the case of bereavement due to the loss of a relative or in the event of military obligations a state mandate. Professors are given discretion over any additional absences, including for illness, hospitalization, or bereavement for the loss of a non-relative, all of which are considered impermissible under university policy.

Individual colleges can also create 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 health day in the Fall. Classes were canceled that day, and the college provided activities surrounding wellness for further encouragement.

That’s one of the things that made me think, why don’t we just do this? Why aren’t we advocating for health anyway? Beddow said about health day.

As someone with anxiety, she adds that the downside to a designated wellness day is that she can’t plan for her stress. He said that is why he hopes for the flexibility offered in the amendment bill.

Lake Land College Student Government president Madilyn Brummer said now is the time to get this legislation out. Lake Land, in Mattoon, is a recent collaborator.

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

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

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

ISU student government member Kerem Tasdan said he thinks the wellness days structure will better prepare students for life outside of college. When looking for a job, she tells people to consider benefits like sick days and vacation time. Mental health should be no different.

Such things are always in the conversation for our future, and it should be something we think about even now as students you know, who can choose when you need to take that time, he said.

If the law doesn’t pass, Tasdan said he thinks students will still have an impact.

Hopefully it will at least open the eyes of people who may not have been exposed to the issue as much, he said.

Monk, president of ISU’s Student Body, said he was prepared to make any concessions on the initial demands.

We’re gonna be willing to compromise on everything with this, he said. We’re trying to pass a state law here, so if they come to us and say, Hey, we’re giving you one day a year, we’re happy to take it.

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