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Dr. Micere Keels, associate professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago, during a virtual town hall meeting Monday on mental health. 

During a town hall Monday evening, community advocates and public officials highlighted some of the ways that the Covid-19 crisis has impacted the mental health of Chicago students and parents, and suggested strategies and resources for helping navigate life under a pandemic. 

The event was hosted by Ald. Sophia King (4th) and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), along with Bright Star Church and the Greater Bronzeville Community Action Council, whose area of coverage includes Hyde Park. 

“When you talk about mental health, one of the most important things I’m hearing is really taking care of your physical health. The virus appears to be attacking those who are immunocompromised,” said King at the beginning of the meeting. “I don’t think people realize that mental health is so tied to your physical health, the immune system is tied to your mental health.”

Bright Star Community Outreach, a nonprofit affiliated with the church, has a helpline that people can call to receive mental health counseling and resources. Since the onset of Covid-19, calls have increased by 18%, according to Elaine Smith, assistant clinical director of The Urban Resilience Network Center in Bronzeville, who runs the helpline. 

“One of the things that we are definitely encouraging parents (to do) is to come in and get emotional support. This is a whole new norm, not just for us, but also for our kids too, while we’re adjusting and helping them get the education they need,” Smith said. “The only way i can describe the helpline is as a place to come and vent your frustrations and talk more about your anxieties.” 

Through the helpline, parents and other people in need of help can also access virtual, face-to-face counseling or receive guidance to finding other forms of support like rental assistance. “We’re not just here to provide emotional support, but also resources and support for other programs,” Smith said. “Just give us a call and we’ll put you in the right place at the right time to help you get through the hump.” 

Adenia Linker, a field supervisor with dropout prevention organization Communities in Schools, spoke about how to keep children engaged in school while the pandemic is going on. For younger children, it may be important to limit the amount of media they consume. 

“Little ones don’t really understand how to process the fact that their schedules have been disrupted, and that they’ve lost opportunities to connect with friends,” Linker said. “But if we can help them by maintaining any of the academic routines that were important to them, that will help them have some structure in their day at home.” She added that it is also important to ensure children are spending enough time with parents, particularly since they may be more emotionally needy or prone to temper tantrums than usual. 

Apart from helping educators and parents figure out how to help students with their mental health during the pandemic, some researchers are also working to prepare schools for dealing with its aftermath, when traumatized children return to school. Dr. Micere Keels is an associate professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago who founded the Trauma Responsive Educational Practices (TREP) project, which helps schools provide resources for students living in high-crime neighborhoods. 

During Monday’s town hall, Keels said that TREP’s work has become more broadly relevant because of the crisis. “When Covid-19 hit, mental health and stress challenges became something that mattered everywhere and in every school,” she said. “We created online courses… so educators everywhere can go in and learn about issues, and start doing things as soon as possible. It’s making sure educators are prepared and ready for students when they return.” 

Not every student will be affected equally, Keels noted — the virus itself has disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx communities in Chicago, but low-income households have also been hit particularly hard by the sharp economic downturn. 

“Those disparate effects are going to translate into the most disparate effects for kids. (Some) are in families that have lost the most caregivers, are in deepening poverty or are suddenly being plunged into poverty,” she said. “And so we’re learning lessons really from Hurricane Katrina and other disasters in order to be able to think about and plan for the upcoming year so we’re not behind the curve.”

Reporter

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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