Youth leaders on Thursday called on Chicago and its school district to launch a mental health hotline to support young people grappling with the emotional fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
In a virtual town hall, Chicago teens said the outbreak has heightened mental health challenges and cut them off from school and community help. They said they need an easy way to connect with school social workers and other professionals — both while schools remain closed and in the aftermath of the crisis.
“The COVID-19 crisis is making everything so much harder,” said Arnoldo Tello, a senior at Mather High School in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood. “The support I received from my friends and my school had always helped me deal with my anxiety and depression.”
Young leaders with Communities United and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education organized the town hall held via Zoom videoconference. State elected officials who tuned in voiced support for more mental health resources for students.
“I think it’s critical that we hear from you and let you lead the charge,” said state Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, a former school teacher. “The burden is on our youth because they love their families and their communities, and the pressure is on.”
As Chicago Public Schools launch new remote learning plans after this week’s spring break, the district has said that schools will make counselors and social workers available to students for at least four hours a day — the same expectation the district has for teachers.
But it’s not yet clear how schools will deliver those services, particularly for families without device or broadband access. Susan Hickey, a social worker at Vaughn Occupational School, said she and her colleagues need additional guidance on maintaining student privacy and confidentiality during the remote learning phase. She cautioned that students will begin the next school year with higher social and emotional needs, and schools need to be prepared to serve them.
The mental health and well-being of students has been a recurrent theme this school year and took a central role in the most recent round of negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools. The resulting contract calls for the school district to ramp up hiring of social workers during the next five years until there is one in every school. Since the pandemic hit, the union has called on the district to shorten that timeline.
Some teens who took part in the town hall noted that the outbreak is affecting the city’s communities of color disproportionately. African Americans in Chicago account for almost 70 percent of deaths from COVID-19 though they make up roughly 30 percent of the city’s population. Students called on officials to address the ways in which the pandemic’s stresses are colliding with ongoing concerns about gun violence, poverty and more.
“Nobody has asked us what we need,” said student Meyiya Coleman. “We need mental health to be a priority, not an option.”