Chicago Public Schools is launching a new initiative aimed at providing mental health support for students amid increased rates of depression, suicide, and anxiety disorders among young people across the nation.
Please Stay is focused on promoting dialogue around mental health support for seventh to 12th grade students, the district announced Tuesday morning. The suicide prevention program, which coincides with Mental Health Awareness month, was created by pop singer Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation and mental health grassroots organization Find Your Anchor. The campaign offers schools materials to tackle mental health issues and promote self-care among students.
School districts across the country are grappling with how to deal with the mental health fallout from the pandemic. Last month, the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention released a survey that found 1 in 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. About 44% of students also reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” according to the survey findings.
Amid the uncertainty of the last two years, Northside College Prep senior Anmol Singh witnessed firsthand how “COVID-19 really took a toll on students’ mental health.”
“We’re all very fearful,” Singh said. “There was a sense of uncertainty in the air, and being tasked to continue with school, but also not know if it’s okay to even go outside. That was something that was very hard to manage.”
He remembers his family life being disrupted, financial hardships, and being disconnected from extended family. His mother had to take a leave of absence to care for his 3-year-old brother, while his older brother missed out on cornerstone moments of his senior year.
“We were just really devastated by the fact that we had to completely uproot everything that we knew,” Singh recalls.
“The uncertainty kind of piled on, and at times, it was really rough” to understand and put things into perspective, he said. “We were constantly trying to be hopeful of the future when not really understanding what the future would entail.”
In Chicago, mental health support has long been a concern among parents, students, and advocates who have called on the district for additional resources such as more social workers and counselors at schools to address mental health issues exacerbated by the pandemic. In March, concerns for more academic and mental interventions came to a head during a Chicago school board meeting, where members said the district was not spending funds fast enough to address immediate academic and mental health needs.
“This is an emergency,” board president Miguel del Valle said at that meeting, calling on the district to move faster on hiring for community-based organizations that provide CPS with social, emotional, and mental health support. “Schools are crying out for additional help.”
The district has allocated about $24,000 from federal COVID relief funds to launch the Please Stay campaign.
“This campaign reminds students of the importance of prioritizing their mental health and of the many supports that are available to them,” CEO Pedro Martinez said in a statement.
As part of the initiative, schools will facilitate peer-to-peer conservations, provide additional tips to cope with stress, and connect students with resources, officials said.
The district distributed materials to school communities to help spur conversations on self-care and identify “anchors,” such as activities, sports, or snacks that help steady students during times of stress.
As part of the program, students participating are asked to take a pledge to reach out for support if needed.
In a letter to parents, Martinez said the initiative was a response to a rise in depression, suicide, and anxiety disorders among young people that have been “made worse by the stress and isolation” brought on by the pandemic. “The time to address it is now,” he said.
Michael Roy, the Training and Prevention team lead with CPS’ office of student protections and Title IX, said coronavirus and its impact have created additional challenges for young people.
The initiative is designed to be an accessible way for administrators, teachers, and counselors to have conversations with young people and connect them to resources available in the school building, Roy said.
“It was important to do this as a way to really start destigmatizing the conversation around mental health,” Roy said.
The initiative is one part of the district’s efforts to support students’ social and emotional health. The district is working with Lurie Children’s Hospital to implement Behavioral Health Teams in every district-run school by 2023-24, Roy said.
Since returning to in-person learning, school officials have seen an increase in mental health concerns among students presenting with “anxiety and depression,” says Taylor Daum, a counselor at Thomas Kelly High School on the Southwest Side.
“We’re also seeing some trauma, especially in regards to the past few years of the pandemic,” Daum said.
In the coming weeks, the Southwest Side school will launch additional activities including homeroom lessons around the campaign and schoolwide interactive activities, and work with community partners to foster a sense of community while addressing persistent mental health concerns, Daum said.
The program offers flexibility for schools to customize various activities to meet the needs of students at their campuses, Roy said.
He acknowledges the initiative is only one part of the puzzle.
“We are recognizing that we have a lot of need for outreach for communities of color, for our LGBTQ+ young people who might have additional challenges” who haven’t traditionally received equitable resources and support, Roy added.
Northside College Prep senior Singh hopes this initiative is one of many steps by the district to help prioritize high quality mental health services for students — and opens a door for peers to speak openly about what they’re going through.
“It’s been a taboo for so many years,” Singh said, noting that conversations around mental health are rare in the classroom setting and at home for some students. But these dialogues, and prioritizing mental health, he says, can help students succeed in school.
“I hope that we continue to move in this positive direction, we continue to push the boundary, push the envelope,” Singh said, “and we continue to realize that students’ mental health is really important.”
Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at firstname.lastname@example.org.