What Mental Health is Lacking: Access, Awareness, and Action

Jiaming Lou and Ava Martin

In anticipation of Chicago’s upcoming mayoral election in February, students in DubTV and the Beacon worked with 11 schools across the city to create a poll that gauged what current issues mattered most to high schoolers. In collaboration with Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and the Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, this survey revealed mental health as a chief concern. 

Anxiety and depression rates have skyrocketed, as noted nationally by the American Psychological Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Predictably, concern over mental health services have also increased. In response to the question, “Do you feel your school is doing enough to support students’ mental health?”, only 20.8% of students responded “yes” while 24% responded “no”. Yet the last option, “somewhat,” garnered 69% of the votes, making overall satisfaction or dissatisfaction unclear. “Somewhat” is the most popular answer to this question at all participating schools, and at Whitney Young, Lane Tech, Mather, Kenwood, Latin, and Pritzker, this response outnumbers the amount of “yes” and “no” answers combined. However, more satisfaction than dissatisfaction overall shows at Lane Tech (public school), Mather (public school), Latin (private school), and Pritzker (charter school). There appears to be little association between the type of school and the amount of support that students feel, though a school’s public versus private funding could very well restrict the number of resources offered. 

It may also be that an absence of mental health awareness–underemphasized acknowledgement of its existence by one party and underutilization of already provided resources by the other party–is at the root of the problem. At Whitney Young, 11 counselors can speak to mental health–as it is part of their job–but there is only one psychologist. Student Tyler Tharpe was “unaware [the psychologist] existed until this year, my senior year.” Another way to decrease dissatisfaction is for the school and/or student groups to simply put more effort into organizing mental health activities. The last time Whitney Young held a school-wide mental health event was during remote learning, in which the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee organized a Mental Health Week. Tharpe comments, “…there is an increase of mental health awareness. However, the amount of accessible mental health care has not increased at the same rate.” Tharpe added, “It is exponentially better to have more trained specialist[s] on staff who can deal with grief and mental illness [than relying on counselors].” It’s clear that both awareness and action need to be improved.

At an academically-intensive environment like Whitney Young, students challenge themselves not only with AP and Honors classes, but also participate in a variety of extracurricular activities. Factors like the time to commute to school and balancing school life with social life add to students’ stress levels, and having just five mental health days for the school year doesn’t seem enough to many. As one sophomore says, “[In some classes]…there are a lot of homework assignments, and very little consideration of students who have long commutes or after school activities.” Another anonymous student agrees, especially stressing the amount of time put into studying for quizzes and tests given on the same day. All these findings show that it’s just as important to raise awareness about the mental health resources available as it is to standardize more activities that put emphasis on students’ mental health.

Yet despite the 20.8% of students surveyed that believed the school has done enough to support students’ mental health, only one student selected “mental health services provided by schools” as one of three issues that “impacts or concerns them the most” (out of 18 options given). The top three choices were “global warming” (38.4%), “poverty” (36.8%), and “healthcare” (36%). 

It’s clear that the Whitney Young student body cares about a myriad of issues, though city-wide (and larger-scale) matters must fall into the hands of local and national government organizations. The poll referenced throughout this report was originally designed in anticipation of a live forum with the mayoral candidates; the issues voiced by students would be presented to each candidate in a series of questions. However, most of the candidates either did not respond or declined the request. This adds to the attitude some students have adopted: they simply aren’t confident that more will be done. An anonymous Whitney Young senior said, “I think many of us have just grown so disillusioned and faithless with our authority figures actually wanting to make real change,” leaving the direction of said change up in the air. Still, the results from the poll are not to be overlooked. Change must start somewhere; if not on a larger-scale level, then at least on a local level.

If you have ideas as to how individuals, communities, or officials can address these concerns, email the authors of this article at [email protected] and [email protected].