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Hailey Mahan/MEDILL

The "Kids at Risk" Forum at DePaul University discussed the link between poverty and childhood mental health.

DePaul forum links kids' poverty and mental health

by Hailey M. Mahan
May 03, 2013


Hailey Mahan/MEDILL

Panelists at the forum included Chicago educators and school counselors.

Poor mental health is linked to poverty in increasing numbers of children, reported a panel of Chicago educators and school counselors at a DePaul University forum on Thursday.

Many of the speakers shared first-hand accounts of students struggling with both poverty and mental illness.

Erin Mason, a professor at DePaul College Education, told of a Student who had “extreme anxiety during winter months” because his family would go without electricity and would use candles and their gas-powered stove to heat the house.

Shelby Wyatt, school counselor at Kenwood High School in Chicago, said that depression in children affected by poverty is on the rise as well as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

“Some type of war is going on,” said Wyatt of the laundry list of stressors that can contribute to poor mental health.

The panel was brought together by DePaul’s College of Education for the “Kids at Risk: The Impact of Poverty on Children’s Mental Health” forum. The forum discussed different points of view of the problem from each educator and counselor as well as first hand accounts of children with these problems.

“There’s a huge need for mental health counseling,” said Lissette Guzman, a school-based clinician for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. One of the many problems that she and other speakers echoed was the shortage of clinicians to help with this need.

Guzman said that symptoms of poor mental health in children include inattention. She said that many students brought to her show poor academic performance because their attention in class is focused on fears such as where that student will get their next meal or where they are sleeping tonight.

Schools can do something to combat the poor mental health that can come with poverty. Wyatt said that schools should provide extracurricular activities that keep a child busy and out of trouble. He also said that teachers and faculty should seek out the community resources that can help.
A child never asks to be born in poverty and many children have a hard time communicating their thoughts, Wyatt said. It is up to adults to be in control and to provide a safe environment for children.

But there is a small silver lining.

“Despite all of the chaos, these children still have a lot of hope,” said Guzman. The children are resilient, but they need that one adult to make a connection to change their life.