By Igor Studenkov
With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forcing schools to shift to online learning for the rest of the spring semester, Chicago Public School (CPS) students and educators are pushing to give students better access to mental health services.
On April 9, the Communities United and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) social justice advocacy organizations held an online media conference also featuring State legislators and students to bring attention to students at home being unable to talk to counselors, even as they face more stress. Stress has increased especially for the many students living in low-income minority communities that already endure lack of resources, fewer job opportunities, and more violent crime.
The organizations urge the CPS and the State of Illinois to set up a mental health hotline and make it easier for students to talk to counselors and social workers remotely. Several State legislators have joined in to voice support.
Arnold Tello, a senior at Mather High School on the North Side, said that, as a “Latinx young man who identifies as LGBTQ” and someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, he got significant support from his friends and school. Now largely confined at home, he has been struggling.
“CPS and the State need to make providing access to mental health a priority,” Tello said, urging Illinois and the City of Chicago to start a mental health hotline and give students online access to social workers and counselors.
He also urged the City to set up resources to address post-pandemic trauma in the community.
Student leaders emphasized that, for many of them, stress caused by the coronavirus comes on top of existing stressors they already experience in the community.
Degalo Moore of the West Side said he lost a friend to gun violence two weeks earlier, and he has been thinking about how he lost his father to gun violence a few years earlier. These traumas come on top of existing issues such as higher unemployment and fewer available resources. So it’s no wonder, he said, that African Americans are dying from coronavirus in greater numbers.
“When I think of the neighborhoods up north, they’re not going through the same struggles as the South and West Sides,” he said.
Myaia Coleman of the North Lawndale community said that, for many people in her area, finding jobs and paying bills is already a struggle.
“We need resources, we need mental health to be a priority, not an option,” she said. “And it should start right here, right now.”
Coleman added that staying home and social distancing do not feel realistic when one must earn a living.
“We have to go outside, we have to find resources, and we have to go to work,” she said. “And without work, we can’t provide for our families, and how can we stay in our house? No one is asking ‘What do you need?’ so you don’t have to go outside.”
When asked how police have conducted themselves in their communities since the stay-in-place order went into effect, both Moore and Coleman complained that officers abused their power.
“Last Tuesday, I was going to my friend’s house, because I haven’t seen him in a while, and I was going to the store,” Moore said. “When I came outside, police was harassing us: ‘Y’all need to get in the house, you all need to be inside, and if you aren’t in house by 5 p.m., you’ll be arrested.”
Moore said that, while he knew officers were facing stress, it seemed only fair that they treat civilians with respect.
“When it comes to the police and COVID-19, I believe a lot of police are abusing their powers,” said Coleman. “They’re looking at us like walking disease, and I think that’s unfair. Because, at the end of the day, folks need to be able to make money, and I feel like the police doesn’t understand it. People need to go outside.”
She said that, a few days earlier, police stopped her brother while he was walking.
Susan Hickley, a school social worker, said she and her colleagues had to figure out how to help students, but they’ve struggled with a lack of professional guidance. Providing services online has been tricky due to privacy concerns, and because some students may be experiencing domestic violence or abuse at home, that makes it even harder.
Need comprehensive program
“We need a fuller, comprehensive program going forward,” she said. “You’re going to come back in September, and we need to have that in place for you.”
Hickley also noted many families in lower income communities do not have internet service, so they do not have as many opportunities to interact with friends and loved ones.
Odalis Garcia, of suburban Skokie, is a senior at Niles North High School. She echoed her peers’ demands for more mental health resources, adding that the State should do something to help “mixed-status” families—families in which different members have different immigration statuses, and some family members may not be in the United States legally.
She noted that, because suburbs tend to be stereotyped as middle class, officials may overlook needs among some of these areas’ more vulnerable residents.
Several State legislators chimed in to offer support. State Rep. Jaime Andrade (D-40th), whose district includes much of the Northwest Side, said he knew what the teens who spoke went through. Growing up Andrade experienced times when his family had to apply for food stamps.
“Please rest assured that you will always have a voice, and I will always try to help you pass legislation” for which you are advocating, Andrade said.
State Rep La Shawn Ford (D-8th), whose district includes the West Side, said he was proud to see youth leaders take mental health issues head on.
“I support the effort, and it’s pretty reassuring to hear the youth taking a stand when it comes to mental and behavioral health and removing the stigma,” he said. “So often, you hear adults say to the youth, ‘You have nothing to worry about.’ But the burden is on our youth because they love their families and they love their communities.”
Ford specifically mentioned Moore, saying he will be “here for you, in the fight for more resources.”
From this community, State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th), whose district includes the South Loop and Bronzeville, said that, growing up, he struggled with mental health issues brought on by his mother’s alcoholism, so he pledged to help.
“I will go through that struggle with you, and I will fight with you for those issues in Springfield,” he said.
Similarly, State Sen. Celina Villanueva (D-21st) of the Southwest Side said she has been upfront about her own mental health history to reduce the stigma about getting therapy and mental health treatment. Even before the pandemic, she said, CPS could have done more, especially when it comes to making sure minority students have access to “culturally competent” social workers.
The mental health “hotline idea is an incredible idea, and I’m looking forward to working with you all to at least start that,” Villanueva added.
On April 28, CPS announced that, as part of budget for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year, it will provide additional funding for social workers and case managers.
For Communities United, call (773) 583-1387 or log on to communitiesunited.org. For VOYCE, log on to voyceproject.org or call (773) 583-1387. For local State Senator Peters, log on to www.senatorrobertpeters.com or call (773) 363-1996.