State Rep. Karina Villa is a 40-year-old Democrat representing West Chicago. She's one of dozens of fresh faces at the Illinois State Capitol this year and also one of seven lawmakers in the House of Representatives whose election flipped a red seat blue -- from Republican to Democrat.
Villa was a school social worker for 15 years — and said that’s actually what prompted her to make a run for the state legislature. Instead of just complaining, she wanted to be a part of "the solution."
“I saw, under the last administration, how mental health services in general were dwindling," she said. "It was a lot harder to access services for my students. Families that I worked with were in a middle class family in DuPage County were struggling with just meeting basic needs.”
Social service agencies –- including mental health services -- are still licking their wounds after they were decimated by a nearly 3-years-long budget stalemate between former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democratic lawmakers.
But, Villa believes this is a unique time for mental health in the state, and across the country, that could inspire some real change.
“When I started my career so many years ago, I remember it was just so hard to bring light to mental health," said Villa. "People wanted to sweep the problem under the rug. Now, the brilliant thing about being here in Springfield at this time is that people want to talk about it. It’s a bipartisan issue on both sides of the aisle. People are now willing to look for solutions and put resources behind this problem.”
That momentum is something Villa intends to use. Her first piece of legislation, introduced early last month, would require schools to specifically discuss mental health within the health curriculum for all students. The idea is to help children and teens recognize the signs of conditions like depression or anxiety.
When presenting the proposal to lawmakers, Villa shared a story about a fifth grade student who she had concerns about for years. It wasn’t until an in-class assignment where students read a TIME magazine article about mental health that the student made an important discovery.
“That student had to be excused from the class and came to see me and he was in tears," she told lawmakers. "He looked at me and he said 'Miss Villa, I finally know what’s wrong with me. I have depression. I need you to call my parents and I need you to tell them that that’s what I have'."
Villa said that's what she wants to see happen more often. One in five children have or will have a serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Villa believes students should be more aware of the signs and symptoms not only for their own benefit, but to also to help remove the negative stigma associated with mental illinesses.
Those who are opposed to the legislation don’t have a problem with the idea of it, but want to be sure this will not be another unfunded mandate for public schools.
“The way that her bill is written, it’s more goals for what mental health curriculum is doing and we think that will be better placed in the Illinois learning standards,” said Zach Messersmith with the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance. He said if this particular goal is placed within the health curriculum, he's concerned schools may be forced to purchase new textbooks or other tools.
Villa, who has spent years working in schools, said she appreciated the concern but she did not want this to become a burden on schools and did not have any specific curriculum in mind. The example given with the TIME magazine article would be a sufficient tool for educators.
The measure has failed to generate any Republican co-sponsors. It did pass out of the mental health committee unanimously where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle applauded the freshman lawmaker.
“Rather than hazing you, I’m going to praise you," said state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago). "I think this is a great bill.”