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Illinois mandates mental health screenings of students starting this fall

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(The Center Square) – Starting in the fall of 2024, a new state law, the Wellness Checks in Schools Program Act, will require yearly mental health screenings for Illinois’ 2 million school students.

Mark Klaisner, executive director of West 40 in West Cook County, said schools only have a few months to find a screening model and train people to administer the screenings. The Illinois State Board of Education is currently working through the challenge of exactly how to get a mental health screening process up and running.

The goal is to identify troubled children and intervene before their mental health problems escalate. On Jan. 3 in Perry, Iowa, a small rural school district, a 17-year-old who had been bullied for years shot seven people, including the principal, before killing an 11-year-old boy and himself.

“In 1999, we were all shocked by Columbine. How could that happen? Now it happens every week,” Klaisner said.

The problem is more widespread than the cases that get on the news, Klaisner said.

“If you were to walk into any school and talk to the principal or the dean, they will tell you that behavioral incidents are way up from what they were 3 to 5 years ago,” Klaisner said. “It’s fights in the hallways. It’s kids acting out.”

Safe schools, designated schools where Illinois children are assigned after multiple suspensions and expulsion, are “busting at the seams,” Klaisner said.

“Way before COVID, we saw the increase of instances of disturbed kids acting out at school,” Klaisner said.

The COVID school shutdowns have made the problem worse, he said.

“The rise of behavioral and mental health issues coming out of the pandemic has been astounding,” he said

For years, experts at the Lurie Children’s Hospital, the Center for Childhood Resilience, and the Chapin Hall Center at the University of Chicago have consulted with Illinois on the best ways to care for students with mental health problems.

Ideally, a screening session will be a 15-minute, one-on-one conversation between a trained social worker or counselor and a student. Trained screeners have more success in finding problems when they can look for body language and cues, Klaisner said.

Anxiety and depression are triggers for behavioral problems. Screeners may find a child who is concerned about coming to school. The child may think that othert students are looking at him or talking about him, indicating a higher-than-normal level of anxiety.

“Let’s follow up with that young person and see what is going on with them,” Klaisner said.

A decade ago, social workers in schools only dealt with kids who had disabilities, he said. Now schools are finding that many families are dealing with difficult, trauma-based issues that manifest in schools.

“You will find educators who are feeling the pressure of ‘one more thing on our plate.’” Klaisner said. “It is already on our plate and we can’t deny its existence.”

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