Chicago High School Mental Health

Examining data on mental health in preparation for mayoral election


Photo credit: Harry Lowitz

A table showcasing data from numerous Chicago area schools that was gathered through the Mayoral Youth Forum.

On February 28, 2023, Chicagoans will go to the polls to select the next mayor, an opportunity they only get once every four years. According to the United States census, almost 2.7 million people live in Chicago but one-fifth of them are under 18 and thus cannot vote this February. Many of these young people are high school students dealing with a variety of challenges, including mental health struggles.

As part of the Mayoral Youth Forum which is being organized by Northwestern Medill and the Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, the Weekly helped to collect data on Chicago high schoolers’ opinions on a variety of topics relevant to the mayoral election. Among these topics was Mental Health. The data represents responses from 1,258 students from 11 schools across Chicago, some public and some private.

The first question relating to mental health asked students how concerned they were with the issue of mental health. For most schools, the greatest number of respondents said “concerned.” “Concerned” or “very concerned” made up 58% of respondents from Parker and 62% of total respondents while only 3% of Parker respondents and 10% of total respondents answered “not concerned.”

The other mental health question asked students if they felt their school was doing enough to support students’ mental health. The most popular response for all schools was “somewhat,” accounting for 45% of Parker respondents and 50% of total respondents. 

“We go to a really competitive school,” junior Izzy Markel said. She explained that almost everyone is constantly worried about their grades and where they will go to college. According to Markel, it is difficult to focus on your mental health while dealing with the academic and competitive pressures of being a high school student.

Upper School counselor Dr. Gary Childrey spoke about the stigma around mental health being problematic for high schoolers. He said they might identify a mental health condition they are having and view it in an unhealthy way that stops them from getting the appropriate help.

In the Parker Upper School, two school counselors, Childrey and Winnie Kearns, are in charge of counseling several hundred students. “Compared to other schools, that’s a pretty good number,” Childrey said. According to him, in a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) high school, one counselor might serve student bodies that are several times the size of the entire Parker Upper School.

Childrey also feels that Parker counselors are included in administrative decisions and school incidents that might have an effect on students’ mental health. He also noted that Parker faculty come together when they know a student is dealing with a family crisis and they consult with the counselors on how to support that student. Childrey is encouraged by the fact that Parker always takes a mental health perspective into account.

“The primary purpose of my job is to help you get through high school in one piece and to help prepare you for college,” Childrey said. He believes that the next mayor should prioritize getting “more psychologists and social workers to be there to help students cope.”

Upper School English teacher Alicia Abood was not very surprised by the results of the survey. Abood also connected the results to the access that many Parker students have to mental health resources thanks to their socio-economic statuses.

Almost three years ago, COVID-19 caused all Chicago schools to go online. The isolation of remote learning as well as the broader anxiety of the pandemic have been the root of many mental health challenges for high school students.

“We are very much still experiencing the immediate aftereffects,” Abood said. She has noticed an increase in “fatigue” in students as they return to more normal school. “I feel like we’re still moving in a car with some of the wheels off,” she said.

Abood often considers how best to balance her class time between academic programming and trying to understand tumultuous current events. Additionally, when faced with a crisis or incident, she wonders what use of class time would be most conducive to students’ mental health.

Childrey believes the isolation of the coronavirus played into increased mental health problems for teens but said that there are multiple trends that are contributing to this issue. He mentioned increased social media presences, current events, and “depressing” news coverage.

“It’s hard to fully embrace mental health and really talk about mental health in a school setting because it is so competitive and academically rigorous,” Markel said. She explained that unless schools’ curriculums were to change, it is unlikely that students’ mental health could really be dealt with.

Abood believes that mayoral candidates need to face the crisis that is high schoolers’ mental health in Chicago. “I would want to see that they’re going to acknowledge it first and foremost,” she said.