In-school mental health services help students process trauma so they can focus on learning.

By Mike Shaver, President & CEO, Brightpoint

It’s back-to-school season in Chicago, and students are carrying many unseen burdens with them to class. We know that COVID lockdowns revealed and worsened existing mental health crises among our youth, who are still feeling the ripple effects of that era. Growing up in the internet age with the pressures that social media places on children and teens—particularly girls—only adds to the stress for our school-aged kids.

As if things aren’t hard enough, the tragic reality is that too many Chicago children and teens frequently experience trauma—through gun violence, substance abuse, domestic and relationship violence, and grief and loss. Even worse, due to system barriers perpetuating cycles of poverty and violence, children in Black and Brown communities are disproportionately impacted by traumatic events.

A June 2023 U of Chicago Education Lab study found that an “astonishing 38 percent” of Black and Latina adolescent girls in Chicago schools showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is double the rate of PTSD among service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. That same study found that placing adolescent mental health programs in Chicago schools significantly reduced PTSD, anxiety and depression among Black and Latina teens.

Kids bring their trauma to school with them

Consider a child or teen living in a community where a lot of violence happens. They may experience or witness violence at home and on the way to school, and it may take time to get settled when they arrive. Add in getting jostled in the hallway, a taunt from another student, and a noisy classroom, and these cumulative emotional paper cuts keep that student stuck in a hypervigilant protective state, making it hard to concentrate and think.

Research shows that trauma affects the brain by causing it to “go offline,” sending a person into self-protection mode when triggered. This trauma response keeps a student from accessing the part of the brain that works to process and retain information correctly. A traumatized student’s behavior can also affect their classmates’ ability to focus and learn.

In-school mental health services help students heal and teachers teach

We know trauma is affecting our kids’ ability to learn, but there are things we can do to help them heal. For example, Brightpoint, the nonprofit child and family service organization I lead, works within Chicago Public Schools to support students from elementary through high school.

Choose to Change (C2C) is a school- and community-based program combining wraparound mentoring and trauma-informed group mental health services for students in communities disproportionately affected by gun violence. Brightpoint began C2C with our partner, Youth Advocate Programs Inc. (YAP) in 2015, and over the last school year alone served over 500 teens, resulting in reduced violent crime arrests and increased school attendance. Chicago Public Schools has further invested in a C2C-informed intervention through a network of community-based organizations servicing an additional 400 youth in Chicago. With continued support from the city, this model can expand to help even more teens heal from trauma.

Brightpoint also embeds mental health professionals within elementary schools around Chicago. These professionals provide social and emotional services for students and trauma-informed training for school personnel. These supports meet a dire need for mental health services that is much greater than current school staff can address.

Early mental health interventions can help Chicago students stay on track when they enter adolescence

We’re also learning from our C2C program that there are often opportunities to help much earlier in a student’s life, which makes school-based programming in elementary schools even more vital. If we can intervene earlier in a child’s life and offer supports and resources to them and their families, we will see fewer students in crisis as teens.

We’ve seen these positive interventions in action through the Brightpoint Community Hub at Schubert Elementary in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, where many of the nearly 600 students are recent arrivals to the city. In addition to offering on-site mental health services, our therapists have cultivated community partnerships to help Schubert students and their families obtain food, diapers, and access to Medicaid and work permits. Combined, mental health services and assistance with practical needs help children thrive at home and school.

Let’s work together to help our students get the mental health services they need

Mayor Johnson’s transition plan calls for in-school interventions like C2C, school-based mental health services, and Community Hubs to offer desperately needed mental health and wellness services to our students. These services are no longer a “nice to have” perk. It’s time to normalize and fund on-site mental health services that address our students’ needs. I encourage the Mayor, with the support of civic leaders and council members, to work together to make these services readily available to our students.

Mike Shaver is President and CEO of Brightpoint, a child and family service organization, formerly known as Children’s Home & Aid, serving over 30,000 children and families a year in 67 Illinois counties.