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Drug Use, Mental Health Most Pressing Youth Health Concerns in Chicago Identified by Adults During Pandemic

September 14, 2021

Schools Will Play Key Support Roles 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago parents and other adults identified drug use and mental health as the most prominent health issues for Chicago’s children and adolescents, according to results from a new survey developed by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). These were also leading concerns before the COVID-19 pandemic, but social isolation and major changes to daily routines during the pandemic further escalated the difficulties that youth experience. The study found that:  

  • Drugs, tobacco and e-cigarette use ranked as the top concerns
  • Stress, depression and suicide were also major concerns
  • Women were more likely to be concerned about each issue than men

This is the third year of data collected through Healthy Chicago Survey Jr. citywide, and the first to reflect the perspectives of adults about youth health issues during the pandemic.

Almost two-thirds of parents and non-parents surveyed, especially from low- to moderate-income households, said they considered illicit drug use to be a “big” problem. Illicit drugs include but are not limited to marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and hallucinogens.   

“As children and adolescents return to their classrooms, schools will be able to see how the difficulties of the pandemic have affected students’ behaviors and mental health. Schools are a key source of support for students’ mental health and behavioral well-being, and educators and health professionals will play a big role in helping students get the support they need this fall,” says Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP, Chair of the Department of Medicine at Lurie Children’s, Executive Vice-President and Chief Community Health Transformation Officer at the Patrick M. Magoon Institute for Healthy Communities at Lurie Children’s and Chair of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

As in previous years, mental and behavioral health issues ranked high on the list of concerns for youth health in Chicago, with 62 percent of adults saying that stress and depression were big problems. Without question, the pandemic has intensified pediatric mental health concerns, to the point that there is a youth mental health crisis in Chicago and nationally. Youth-serving institutions in community and healthcare settings are working to address the increased need for pediatric mental and behavioral health support. Chicago adults were also concerned about the potential for youth suicide, with 57 percent of adults saying it was a critical problem. The survey found that Latinx and Black adults were far more concerned about youth suicide (64 and 61 percent respectively) than White adults (48 percent). 

The top-ranked youth health concerns identified by adults in the study were:

  • Drugs – 65%
  • Tobacco and e-cigarettes – 65%
  • Stress – 62%
  • Depression – 62%
  • Child Abuse and Neglect – 60%
  • Suicide – 57%
  • Childhood Obesity – 57%
  • Teen Pregnancy – 49%
  • Alcohol – 46%
  • Unintentional Injuries – 39%

“It is vital for us to hear community members’ concerns through the Healthy Chicago Survey, in partnership with Lurie Children’s,” says CDPH Commissioner Allison Arwady, MD, MPH. “Every child’s life in Chicago has been affected in some way by COVID-19 in the last year, and the impact of the pandemic continues. We urge parents to have open dialogue with their children about mental health and wellness, and to be vigilant about their children’s individual needs and to seek assistance if necessary.”  

Among the resources adults and youth can turn to are:

  • Illinois Tobacco Quitline for Smoking Cessation: toll-free 1-866-QUIT-YES
  • The Illinois Department of Public Health’s list of suicide warning signs, including withdrawing from friends, family, and society and experiencing dramatic mood changes
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255, available 24/7 toll-free for anyone facing emotional distress or experiencing a suicidal crisis
  • Child Helpline toll-free 1-800-422-4453 to report a suspected case of child abuse and neglect

This report presents findings from the 2020 Healthy Chicago Survey, Jr., which was administered via phone interviews from June through December 2020. The sample consisted of 4,517 adults in Chicago, 862 of whom were the parent, step-parent or guardian (referred to as “parents” in this report) of at least one child under 18 years old living in the household. The survey cooperation rate was 38%. The survey included parents from all 77 community areas in Chicago and asked about non-COVID-19 related health issues they considered to be “big problems” for all children and adolescents in Chicago – not just their own kids.

Population-focused child health research at Lurie Children’s is conducted through the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Outcomes, Research, and Evaluation Center at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of new knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals in U.S. News & World Report and is the pediatric training affiliate for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 221,000 children from 47 states and 30 countries.