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Illinois school leaders promise more mental health support. Students and educators know where they should start.

Students at CICS West Belden school work in the classroom. They sitting on brightly colored chairs around tables at the Chicago charter school. The walls are decorated with posters.
As Illinois school districts plan to go back fully in-person in the fall, students and educators want to see more school counselors available to support students’ social-emotional needs.
Stacey Rupolo / Chalkbeat

Keji Akinremi and Halima Ahmed, sophomores at Sullivan High School, have watched classmates grapple with the traumas of the past year: The Covid-19 pandemic. Police brutality. Homelessness.

Those struggles won’t end with this school year. So, come fall, Akinremi and Ahmed say, Chicago students will need a lot of support.

“When students come back to school,” said Akinremi. “They’re going to need someone to talk to.”

As district leaders look ahead to the next school year and consider how to use the latest round of federal stimulus funding, students, parents, and educators are calling for more mental health resources and concrete plans to hire additional permanent staff, such as counselors and social workers.

But even though district leaders have said they will prioritize bolstering student mental health, there’s little consensus on how.

Last month, the state board of education said that it will spend $58 million of the second round of funding to offer grants that would allow schools to partner with community agencies. The goal is to bring programs into schools to assist students and staff who have experienced trauma.

Chicago announced in March plans to invest $24 million — out of a total $3 billion federal funds — across three years to expand the number of support teams from 200 schools to almost 500 and recruit help from community organizations through grants. Much of that investment is focused on training existing staff.

But Vince Walsh-Rock, executive director of the Illinois School Counselor Association, says more counselors are needed — something that has been an issue long before the pandemic. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for 250 students. The national average is one school counselor to 424 students and Illinois’ ratio for the 2019-2020 school year was one school counselor to 592 students or 3,000 counselors to over 1.9 million students throughout the state. That has not gone unnoticed by Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who is calling on the federal government to set aside more money for mental health professionals in schools and sent the Biden administration a letter with her request this week.

Ahmed, the Sullivan High sophomore, noticed the gaps as early as elementary school.

“A lot of my classmates were dealing with anxiety and depression, and some of them didn’t have people to talk to,” she said. “Stuff like that isn’t a priority at home. That’s why school should be a second home.”

Walsh-Rock is concerned that new federal funding will expire by 2024, forcing schools to cut long-term positions if state funding doesn’t increase.

“On one hand, it is great for the money’s there,” he said. “But you don’t want to just base new positions on new money because the new money runs out, then what happens with position?”

However, Walsh-Rock hopes school districts use the money to recruit help from local mental health organizations because students will need additional support after everything they have experienced during the pandemic year.

“Students had trauma histories before and that’s only been exacerbated,” said Walsh-Rock. “Everything that has happened in our country in the last year; we’ve been remote and students are processing racial strife that’s happened in our country in isolation. That will impact someone’s trauma history.”

Claude King, a family therapist at Children’s Research Triangle who has provided mental health services to students at Chicago Public Schools on the city’s south and west sides, hopes that teachers receive professional development focused on caring for students dealing with trauma.

“Teachers are looking for more resources to be more trauma-informed, a lot of the behaviors that they’re gonna see in their students, they’re not really viewing it through a trauma lens,” he said. “They’re viewing it as this kid is attention seeking and he’s acting out.”

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