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East St. Louis School District supports 5 mental health days for students

Support staff believes it will give students time to heal from the grief, trauma, violence and stress from the pandemic.
Credit: Pepper Baker

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — The Illinois State Board of Education recently announced a $100 million grant to support mental health for students and educators.

It follows a new state law that allows students to take up to five mental health days off from school starting in January.

Those five mental health days will be excused absences from school, and students will be able to make up any missed work.

"If a student is focused on survival, they're not focused on education," Dr. Tiffany Gholson said. Gholson heads the student and parent support services for the East St. Louis School District 189.

Gholson helps bridge the gap between their families' life circumstances and emotional needs.

"Financial issues, violence, grief and loss. I think the pandemic helped in a way that we were able to recognize that almost everybody is dealing with something," Gholson said.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker recognized students' increased stress during the pandemic. He signed a law, letting students ages 6-17 take five, excused mental health days from school without a doctor's note.

"Sometimes we all need a break, and we'd rather them take that break than to come to school," Gholson said.

Kekeisha Beasley is a mother of seven, with her eighth child on the way. She works with 14 other students in an afterschool program. She saw the pandemic's impact on their mental health.

"It was a lot of outbursts, being really jittery, not being able to concentrate. We had to find new ways to do things," Beasley said.

She teaches her kids to be open about their emotions. She supports the new law, especially while students adjust to being back in school in person.

"At least get that time where they're not punished for that time and to just kind of breathe a little bit, and sometimes it do take being in a place or a space where you can just be alone," Beasley said.

"Some people will say push through and you'll be okay, but I think this gives credibility too, that mental health is just as important as a broken leg," Gholson said.

Gholson says 60% of their students live at or below the poverty line, which adds its own stress on their daily lives.

After the second mental health day, students may be referred to school support staff or professional help services.