Youth Health and Social Problems Getting Worse the Fastest in Chicago

In this report, we explore which youth health and social issues parents in Chicago considered to be the problems that were getting worse the fastest. Researchers at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital teamed up with the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) on the 2018-19 Healthy Chicago Survey, Jr. to ask parents from all 77 community areas in Chicago about health and social issues facing youth in Chicago.
In previous reports, we have discussed the Top 10 Health Problems and the Top 10 Social Issues facing children and adolescents in Chicago. For both reports, respondents were presented with lists of health and social issues facing youth in Chicago and asked whether they considered each issue to be a big problem or not. In addition, we also asked parents, “Of all the health problems that children in Chicago face, is there one problem that you think is getting worse, faster than the others?” Parents generated their own responses, which we categorized based on overarching themes.

Report Highlights

Download the May 2020 Report: Youth Health and Social Problems Getting Worse the Fastest in Chicago.

  • Violence was the issue most frequently identified by parents as the problem getting worse the fastest for Chicago youth.
  • Younger parents were more likely than older parents to consider substance use the problem getting worse the fastest for Chicago youth.
  • Moms and dads had similar levels of concern about youth mental health.

What problems do parents think are getting worse the fastest for youth in Chicago?

The top four youth health and social issues that parents identified as getting worse the fastest compared to others were: violence (23%), substance use (16%), childhood obesity (14%), and mental health (9%) (see Figure 1). Examples of responses for each category included “gun violence” (violence), “drugs” (substance use), “obesity” (childhood obesity), and “depression” (mental health).


Violence was the issue that parents most frequently identified as the problem getting worse the fastest for Chicago youth. This was consistent across parents of all ages, household income levels, education level, and genders. In 2019, homicides in Chicago were down for the third year in a row and gun-related violence in the city was also lower than the previous year. Despite this progress, young people, and young non-Latinx Black males in particular, are most impacted by gun violence. Our data suggest that parents continue to be concerned about the impact of violence on Chicago youth. This may reflect parents’ awareness of social influencers of health, such as the impact that exposure to violence may have on a child’s mental and physical health.
Strengthening Chicago’s Youth (SCY) is a program at Lurie Children’s that aims to prevent violence before it occurs. SCY works with community-based organizations, health care and mental health providers, advocates, researchers, and others to spread awareness about successful violence prevention strategies and to help develop promising new strategies. The CDPH Office of Violence Prevention and Behavioral Health works to prevent violence across the lifespan and reduce the negative impacts of violence when it does occur. 

Substance use

Youth substance use was the second most commonly named issue that parents identified as getting worse the fastest. Substance use was more frequently cited as the problem getting worse the fastest among younger parents (18-29 years old; 29%) than among older parents (30+ years old; 14%). National trends suggest that youth alcohol and drug use (e.g., marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines) have decreased in recent years.
The Substance Use and Prevention Program (SUPP) in the Potocsnak Family Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Lurie Children’s provides assessment, intervention, and outpatient services for youth who meet criteria for any substance use disorder (marijuana, alcohol, tobacco/vaping, and other drugs). Chicago Connects is a CDPH resource directory to help individuals who have substance use disorders find behavioral health and social service resources in Chicago.

Childhood obesity

The third most common response from parents regarding the youth health or social problem getting worse the fastest was childhood obesity. We examined funding for research on childhood obesity from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with the NIH RePORT tool, using the search term “childhood obesity.” Since 2009, funding for research on childhood obesity has been consistently higher than funding for other childhood health problems (see Figure 2), however, research indicates that national rates of childhood obesity have continued to increase. In Chicago, rates of childhood obesity remain higher than the national average. For example, 19% of Chicago kindergarten students were obese compared with 13% nationally, with the highest rates among Latinx children.

The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC) is an obesity prevention coalition housed at Lurie Children’s that uses strategies such as environmental change, public education, advocacy, research, outcome measurement, and program evaluation to promote healthy and active lifestyles for Chicago children. Healthy Chicago 2.0, the city’s public health plan, aims for a 5% reduction in obesity among Chicago Public School (CPS) kindergarten students by promoting healthy food access in school dining centers, classrooms, and gardens, and supporting the CPS LearnWELL Initiative.

Mental health

Mental health was the fourth most common issue that parents thought was getting worse the fastest for Chicago children and adolescents. Moms and dads showed similar levels of concern about this issue (9% and 10%, respectively). Data from a nationally representative survey of U.S. adolescents between 12-17 years of age indicated that the rate of depression increased by 52% from 2005-2017. Among Chicago Public Schools high school students, 35% reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more within the past year and 5% reported a suicide attempt that resulted in an injury.
The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children’s treats youth with psychological or behavioral concerns related to a serious medical illness, as well as children with primary mental health issues. The Center for Childhood Resilience, also housed at Lurie Children’s, provides training, education, and outreach to school professionals, community agencies, city leaders, and parents to increase young people’s access to mental health services and foster resiliency in the face of adversity.