As holiday season approaches, mental health crises in the schools can't be met because of the cuts in mental health workers... while CTU has ignored the issues!

[Reprint from Nov. 21, 2017, yet needed more than ever today especially with the added stress and disease if a World Wide Pandemic and Racist Authoritarian President who seems top be refusing to leave office. Substance Editorial Board]

I have learned during my tenure in Chicago Public Schools that little attention is paid to assist students and staff dealing with mental health concerns especially during the holiday season. It is a busy time for those of us who are in the mental health professions as it is a time that people feel loss, loneliness and trauma more intensely. Often suicide ideation and acting out behaviors increase during this time. Instead of having adequate staffing of mental health professionals- social workers, psychologists and counselors- CPS has felt they do not need to increase the number. On top of the lack of concern by CPS administration is how CTU is done very little to push the Board on this issue.

After years of trying to get CTU to put an article in the last contract to have adequate workload ratios, I gave up. I decided to get involved in the legislative push by my professional organization, NASW (National Association of Social Workers).

Back in April 2017, I went down to Springfield to be a workshop presenter on House Bill 826 which had a provision that school districts may employ enough school social workers to have a ratio of one social worker per 250 students, which is the recommended workload ratio by NASW. It passed without one no vote and was signed by Governor Rauner in August 2017. It was not a mandatory provision and there was no money attached to it but it was a first step to have the state recognize the need. When I asked the CTU legislative staff about pushing this, they said they would support it but will not push it.

Not a word came from CTU about a hearing to discuss mental health in schools which was scheduled on Monday, October 2nd in the Bilandic Building in Chicago.

The Illinois Chapter of the NASW asked me to give testimony on the subject about the dire situation on Chicago schools. I came prepared to give a five minute speech and also brought copies of the 2016 Mental Health report I did for CTU for each member of the joint committee. That report was never used by CTU to push for better mental health services.

I was the first person to testify and the members of the committee were attentively listening. I stayed for the whole hearing and neither Chicago Public Schools nor the Chicago Teachers Union sent anyone to give information about the lack of mental health services.

The article below highlights the crisis schools are facing not only in Chicago but throughout Illinois:

With mental health caseloads soaring, school social workers call for help

by Kevin Beese Staff reporter — October 18, 2017

A 7-year-old in Joliet School District 86 is hospitalized because he planned to shoot himself when he went home from school that day.

A student in the Chicago Public Schools loses 50 pounds because he believes if he eats he will kill his mother.

In Elgin Area School District U46, a student, who averages four hospitalizations a year, is suicidal, homicidal, writing things on his arm and has “every diagnosis under the sun,” according to a school counselor, but is still in the general student population because he does not meet criteria for special education services.

These are just a few of the thousands of Illinois students who are hospitalized each year for mental health issues.

In fiscal year 2016, more than 20,000 Illinois youth — many of them elementary and high school students — were treated by a mental health agency, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The agency reported that children from birth through age 17 made up 28 percent of the 72,826 people statewide who received treatment in the last fiscal year at a mental health agency.

Due to their overwhelming caseloads, school social workers, in some cases, will not see a student unless the individual is suicidal or an immediate danger to others. Students with mental issues deemed non-life-threatening are often given an appointment weeks away.

“If I could clone myself to make five more of me, I think I could be adequately handling my caseload,” said Katie Smiley, a social worker at Larkin High School in Elgin. “The burden becomes heavier and heavier every day. We need more support. We need help.”

The state is looking at just how to provide that help. The state House’s Mental Health Committee is examining the issue of mental health in schools and gathering information on the problems and potential solutions. Members of the committee are expected to propose legislation addressing some of the issues school districts and their social workers face.

“It’s going to take all of us to work together,” said state Rep. Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park), chairperson of the 21-person Mental Health Committee. “… but we’re going to make some big strides in the right direction.” Susan Hickey, a retired Chicago Public Schools social worker, noted before a hearing of the Mental Health Committee Oct. 2 that CPS has one social worker for every 1,250 students, five times the recommended ratio put forth by the School Social Work Association of America.

“I still hear from social workers at CPS and they are literally crying their eyes out,” Hickey said. “They can’t handle what they have to deal with.”

Hickey noted that there are more security officers in the Chicago Public Schools than social workers and counselors combined.

“Security officers are not able to handle kids in crisis situations,” Hickey said. “That is not their training.”

Sarah Hartwick, co-director of legislative affairs at the Illinois State Board of Education, admitted that even in the state’s own school-funding formula there is a proposed ratio of 250 students per social worker for middle schools and high schools, and 450:1 for elementary schools. She added that the numbers in the formula are only a recommendation and are not a mandate for school districts.

Susan Scherer, a psychiatrist for children and adolescents, said more needs to be done to improve mental health services for youth.

“In spite of the fact that there is a huge density of the psychiatric profession in the Chicago area, there are not enough psychiatrists serving youth statewide,” Scherer said. “I think that every school should have a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist, and a school nurse.”

Hartwick said the focus in education is now shifting to the health of the total child.

“With the feds moving away from focusing so much on test scores, states are now given the opportunity to look at children in their entirety and all the resources that are needed to ensure a child graduates from high school ready for college or a career and beyond,” Hartwick said.

She noted that a big part of what the State Board is now focusing on with its efforts is the social and emotional learning of students.

[Beese, K. (2017). With mental health caseloads soaring, school social workers call for help - Chronicle Media. [online] Chronicle Media. Available at: ]


By Susan Hickey, LCSW, is a retired CPS social worker


November 22, 2020 at 7:13 PM

By: Susan Hickey, LCSW

3 years since I wrote this article

There have been a number of changes since I wrote this article on November 21, 2017. There was a CTU strike in which one of the conditions that CTU fought for was a formula to add more social workers and nurses (page 17)

When I asked the CTU social work clinician delegate leadership about how many social workers there are as of 11/21/2020, they did not know and referred me to another CTU delegate that is on the joint staffing committee (waiting for a response to my email). I will write soon about the issues that CTU has not addressed with ODLSS (Office of Diverse Learners Supports and Services). ODLSS just recently hired the replacement for Anthony Adamowski who abruptly left CPS in the past summer. (3 months later).

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