Serena Thakkar just graduated from St. Charles East High School in the western suburbs. The perky teen is looking forward to spending quality time with her sister this summer before going to Loyola University. She said she got a great education at St. Charles and did well in her classes. But she said her wealthy school district didn’t provide much in terms of mental health services.
“It’s become normalized, honestly — the idea that students suffer with mental health, whether it be like a diagnosed illness or just a lot of stress and anxiety,” Thakkar said recently.
Thakkar said classmates would bond over having a mental breakdown or feeling overwhelmed by an upcoming test. She said some might consider these red flags to report to a counselor, but because it was so prevalent, it often went unaddressed.
Lack of mental health service in and out of school has taken center stage since the pandemic started. More than a third of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, 44% of students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless over the year. Faced with that, Thakkar and a group of Illinois teens are trying to hold schools accountable for making things better for students.
Thakkar, along with other students who are part of the Illinois State Board of Education’s Student Advisory Council, came up with a plan the state could take on right now for little to no cost.
They proposed adding a question to a state survey for all schools that asks, “Do you feel your school supports your mental health?” Students could rate their schools from strongly supportive to not supportive. The results would appear on each school’s state report card.
“We were trying to figure out what makes the school value what it does, and a lot of the times those things correlate to what they’re publicly evaluated on,” Thakkar said. “Mental health wasn’t something that a lot of schools are evaluated on.”
Leo Krueger was also a member of the student panel, and he said the group was struck by how common the need for mental health services was in all parts of the state. He just graduated from downstate Vandalia Community High School.
“It just was so apparent that this is an issue that hits every socioeconomic, every demographic, every geographic [group] … This is something that is a true issue in every school, every student in this entire state,” he said.
Krueger plans to attend Illinois State University in the fall. The observant and driven student said unlike other school districts, he thinks his school actually did a good job in addressing student mental health through things like peer mentor programs and regular check-ins from counselors. He thinks it’s a problem that he and Thakkar could go to schools in the same state, but have wildly different experiences.
“I think a common theme that we found was just there’s nothing making or forcing schools to create things that are going to help their students when it comes to mental health,” he said. “There’s no statistics, there’s not a streamline data source across the state that we can refer to.”
Krueger said school is an important touch point for students. He said there are students in his district who struggle to afford basic health care, let alone mental health service.
“We need something in the schools because a lot of these students, they’re in school every day, and I can even say my personal friends aren’t necessarily spending money and time on mental health services outside of the school building,” he said.
Krueger recognized that sometimes kids can get survey fatigue. They’re presented with many each year. But he hopes adding a mental health question to the survey known as the 5Essentials will eliminate the need for others.
The students proposed this to the Illinois State Board of Education earlier this spring. It was embraced by State Superintendent Dr. Carmen Ayala.
“It’s something that is very doable,” Ayala told the student. “We have had other questions in the past that were added for some data collection. I think it’s a great idea, because it’s something that is already in place, and we’re not adding another survey.”
Thakkar likes that the information will show up on the state report card. She said schools care about the image they project, like being known as a high achieving school.
But she doesn’t want the data to be used to punish schools.
“If schools don’t score well, it’s not fair just to publicize this bad score report,” she said. “We should give them options of how they can help improve their students’ mental health.”
The students identified an online platform called Safe2Help, where schools have free access to a hotline and coping strategies.
The state board of education said it intends to add the mental health question to the survey for the 2022-23 school year.
Thakkar said adding a question to a survey won’t be groundbreaking, but she considers it a crucial first step. She hopes it will begin to hold schools accountable.