A new law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, that gives Illinois students five mental health days to use throughout the year without a doctor's note. Many colleges and universities in Illinois have also embraced mental health days for students to recalibrate and refresh. It comes after a particularly taxing year (or more) for mental health across the board. COVID isolation and its consequences, volatile and mean politics at home, a ruthless war by Russia in the Ukraine, and now slapping each other at the Academy Awards! My goodness … we all need a break.
This brief message is another plea to step back, take a break, a deep breath, take a run/walk, read a book, meet with friends, laugh or cry, take a day trip or mini-vacation, and don’t be hesitant about seeking a mental health professional for help or just to talk. These are demanding times on everyone’s demeanor and mental states. These circumstances hit closer to home for some more than others when mental stress impacts our family, friends, classmates and neighbors. Get help and encourage others to get help when necessary.
But this message is probably more geared to those of you who are strong, resilient, undeterred and are coping with the environment around you. You are tough, you are a professional, you are steady, you plow through work or study, and maybe you’ve “… been there and done that … before” and you can cope with almost any circumstance. If you are, that’s great. But many of us don’t recognize that despite that persona we give off to others, maybe things aren’t all right. Maybe many of us are bottling it in or are somehow escaping through various extracurricular activities (some good and some bad). More to the point – how will we know?
Thinking in a context close to our college environment here at UIS, these may be some familiar scenarios. Do any fit you or those around you?
- Anne is a straight-A student and involved in every campus activity. You are her roommate and for the past month she seems withdrawn, has been oversleeping, hasn’t dressed like her normal sharp self, and you hear her grades are not doing so well. What do you do?
- Dr. Jones is one of the best professors on campus (engaged, enthusiastic and friendly). For the past month he has missed several classes and meetings in your department. He seems disheveled (more than normal) and in a recent meeting with his colleagues about a new course they are proposing you hear him shout and even tip over a chair on the way out. You’ve never seen this side to him. What’s going on?
- Julia is a top administrator in the college. Life and work have been busy. But she has always taken the high road and is positive and encouraging about her programs and the direction of the college. Over the past semester you have noticed her distant, disengaged, distracted and just “not” her peppy self. Do you say something as a peer?
- Bill is a longtime facilities staff member and for the past year he has been working overtime to prepare classrooms and the campus to be COVID-resistant. One day you hear students murmur about the “condition” of their classroom and later a member of the academic staff asks you a question about the availability of some supplies. The next thing the students and academic staff see is the staff member dropping his equipment in place and storming out of the room (with a slamming door for emphasis). Do you reach out to him? Do you tell anyone?
Let me be the first to admit, I don’t know the exact right thing to do in each of these situations. I know what procedures, protocols and best practices may say. But there may be several right and wrong answers in these situations. And those are best addressed and answered by trained professionals. But it seems to me that recognizing these circumstances is the key. It might start with a “How’s it going,” “Sorry about the other day,” “Is everything OK,” “Do you want a cup of coffee,” or “Have you thought about … ” The university’s Academic, Student Affairs and Human Resources departments have the resources and staff to help in these situations. Reach out to these professionals as necessary.
To close, what if you identify with one of the distressed main characters in these scenarios? Where do you get help, just talk to someone, or know when to take the time to revitalize and recalibrate? I might suggest that a start is to take a mental health day or days. Of course, balancing those days with your obligations as a student, faculty or staff member is warranted. But your mental health during these difficult times matters. This university, our college, schools, administrators, faculty, staff and students recognize the need to take some time for yourself. If you see stress and anxiety or other behaviors in yourself or others, be supportive and care for one another. Think about self-help. Direct individuals to resources if appropriate and most important – maybe utilize those resources yourselves.
And, let me be clear: Yes, I’m a doctor – but not an MD. Please turn to any of these campus resources for help and assistance and for someone to talk with as needed:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Dr. Robert W. Smith
College of Public Affairs and Administration