Medill Media Teens: Guidance counselors say they see increased stress among CPS teens

As part of the Medill Media Teens program, Chicago Public School students received training and worked closely with Medill master’s students to report and write an article that covered an issue in their school community. 

By Karen Campos
Medill Media Teens

Juan Carlos Salinas felt he never had the mental health support from his school that he needed as a teenager, so he became a guidance counselor on the West Side of Chicago. At Back of the Yards College Prep, his main goal is to give encouragement and support to students. He tries to help his students the best that he can, whether through college applications, grades or personal matters. But the pandemic has made his job much harder. 

“It has been stressful and challenging in many ways,” Salinas, 45, said.

Last school year, Salinas said his caseload was close to 300 students, which wasn’t that different from pre-pandemic times. But while the numbers are similar, the needs are not. He said the teens he consults have an increase in anxiety, mood disorders and panic. He needed to work an additional two hours a day to keep providing the support his students need. This longer, 50-hour workweek was taking a toll on him.

According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37% of teens experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. Along with remote learning, other external factors such as family loss, parents’ job loss and food insecurity contributed to this decline in mental health. The CDC reports that nationwide, 36% of teens have recently reported feeling a persistent sadness or hopelessness, jumping more than 10% since 2009. 

With only four counselors at Back of the Yards last school year, each one had a student load of 250 to 300. This may have been manageable before the pandemic, but the guidance counselors Medill Media Teens talked to at Back of the Yards said the caseload was too much. With only three guidance counselors for the current school year, each one is responsible for 335 teens on average. The on-site social worker, who has a more specialized caseload, sees 70 students. 

According to district officials at Chicago Public Schools, they recognize the need to bring in school counselors and will spend $5 million to hire more counselors as part of the district’s pandemic recovery plan. 

When junior David Sandoval, 17, started talking to his counselor last school year, he focused on grades. Eventually, he opened up and shared more personal matters, about how the constant social interaction with his peers at school stresses him out. He said the conversation between him and the guidance counselor felt better than talking to a teacher. 

“I believe that they have a little bit more knowledge when talking to and understanding students,” Sandoval said. 

Andrew Brasher, the new social worker of BOYCP, saw about 100 students regularly last school year. He noticed teens had more social anxiety, motivation issues, conflicts with other students and attendance difficulties. As the only social worker on campus, Brasher advises CPS to incorporate more counselors and social workers, not only at BOYCP but in all CPS schools. 

“We’re definitely stretched thin right now,” Brasher said last spring. “It would be great if there were more of us.” 

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to every 250 students. ASCA reports that in 2019, however, it was reported that the average ratio nationally was 1:464. This number per counselor has led to lower job satisfaction, job stress and burnout. There also has been more of a trend for counselors to occupy other jobs in addition to counseling, such as hall monitoring, administrative tasks and lunchroom duty. 

BOYCP guidance counselor Kristi Gabriel said every school handles staffing differently depending on the school’s resources. Due to the lack of staff in BOYCP, she has had to be a substitute teacher and a test coordinator, along with the rest of the guidance counselors. 

“We’re one of the only schools where the counselors do test coordination,” Gabriel said. “We’re in charge of coordinating the SAT, the PSAT, AP testing, access testing.” 

These additional job duties have been around in BOYCP since the school opened in 2013, Gabriel said. These added responsibilities on top of their emotionally draining workload weigh down and take away time from addressing the mental health needs of the students. 

Students’ time is another factor guidance counselors must consider. Yentiza Guzman, a BOYCP counselor, aims to meet with a student three times a week. But pulling them out of class could potentially cause students to fail. So there is a delicate balance between mental health treatment and academic focus.

But when there are cases with teens who have more serious deep-rooted issues, such as suicidal thoughts, other services may be necessary. In those cases, Guzman would refer the student to a professional therapist outside of school or even other community measures, such as a mental hospital. 

The most common mental issue that Guzman sees is anxiety. “Anxiety has always been the most prevalent topic,” she said. “Even when I was a former teacher.” 

Violeta Rangel, who was a first-year from Intrinsic Downtown Campus last school year, says being in school gives her social anxiety. Social interaction became difficult when she returned to in-person learning. At first, it was hard to make friends, but now she has plenty of friends to talk to. It was the same with hybrid learning the year before, and as time went on, she got used to it as well. Rangel spoke with a social worker weekly. She said it helps with her anxiety throughout the schoolday.

“It felt like I could finally explain to someone without the person telling other people how I truly feel about things going on,” Rangel said. 

Karen Campos is a senior at Back of the Yards College Preparatory.