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Striking Faculty Demand Mental Health Support for Chicago Students

Teachers’ unions across the country are fighting for better mental health resources after pandemic lockdowns.

Students show solidarity with faculty members on the University of Illinois Chicago campus who are on strike after failing to reach a contract agreement following nine months of negotiations, on January 17, 2023.

Salaries and hours of unpaid labor during the pandemic were on the minds of University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) faculty who showed up to the picket lines on Monday for the first day of a campus-wide strike, but professors and lecturers are demanding more than just better pay.

Like educators across the country, the UIC faculty union is also fighting for better mental health resources for their students, especially those with undiagnosed learning disabilities.

“We’ve been asking for increased student mental health support, including long-term care and appropriate outside referrals, from the beginning,” said Charitianne Williams, a senior English lecturer at UIC and communications officer for the faculty union, in an interview.

The sound of rallying faculty members and their supporters could be heard in the background as Williams spoke to Truthout over the phone. Across the country, new investments in mental health supports for students have been a major sticking point in labor disputes between public schools and universities and the educators they employ.

In Chicago and other cities, teachers’ unions are making improved mental health resources for students a core demand. In Minnesota’s Twin Cities last year, the ratio of students to social workers and mental health counselors was a central issue behind the strikes called by public school teachers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. More than 6,000 teachers in Seattle also went on strike in September and secured a tentative agreement for pay raises and workload protections for educators, nurses, social workers and school counselors.

The strikes follow a wave of labor activism among teachers that began with historic walkouts in states such as Arizona and West Virginia in 2018 and spread across the country before reaching a boiling point during pandemic lockdowns. Public schools became hyper-politicized as debates over COVID protocols and school closures raged online, and right-wing media figures launched an all-out attack, leveraging disinformation to stoke a partisan culture war over racial equity, LGBTQ visibility, and other issues.

Meanwhile, teachers and their students struggled with remote learning as the pandemic exacerbated a mental health crisis among students, youth and educators themselves. Teachers are on the front lines of this crisis. As COVID disrupted everyday life and family members fell ill and died, the demands on teachers at every level of public education expanded rapidly, but in many cases, the salaries and resources afforded to them did not.

“We see the effects of COVID every single day,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in an interview. “It’s not a political issue for us, it’s an everyday real issue, so we are trying to address the real effects of COVID, the effects of disruption, the effects of the anxiety and the trauma, by getting mental health supports for our kids” of all ages.

Along with the deeply homophobic and transphobic attacks on teachers by self-serving politicians and pundits, these challenges have left teachers exhausted and burned out, and the nation is now grappling with an acute shortage of educators. Special education teachers for students living with trauma and disabilities were already in short supply before the pandemic, leaving K-12 teachers without the support of specialists when managing special needs and disruptions in the classroom.

“We have spent the past three years scrambling to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and our whole community — students and faculty — are exhausted,” said Nicole Nguyen, a criminology and law professor at UIC, in a statement. “Management needs to invest in resources that strengthen our entire community.”

Emotional and mental health supports for students are also central to the debate over placing armed police officers in K-12 schools. Racial justice groups argue that limited funding for education would be better spent on social workers, counselors, comprehensive sex education, and other resources designed to help students grow and prevent violence. Simply hiring more teachers and paying them well would also provide relief for educators struggling to maintain order in classes that are growing larger and larger as the shortage of teachers intensifies.

“We’re trying to focus on social and emotional learning, but we are badly understaffed,” said Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, a former kindergarten teacher who now heads a union for teachers in Washington, D.C., in a recent interview.

Learning disabilities and mental health challenges do not disappear when students go to college, and some college students have not previously received a diagnosis and sought out treatment and accommodations. Williams said this became particularly clear at UIC during the pandemic, when administrators instructed faculty to make exceptions for individual students, and educators spent long hours supporting them while attempting to keep classrooms together online.

“During lockdowns, we worked very hard to keep our students going, and the university kept asking for more and more and more from faculty,” Williams said. “We received many emails about forgiving deadlines and making individual accommodations for students.”

Williams said UIC faculty did not push back on these demands despite performing hours of unpaid labor — supporting individual students with specific needs is part of the job — but the university maintained such expectations and workloads well after in-person classes resumed.

“That’s always a part of the job, but that part has been growing exponentially, and with the lack of resources provided by the university, faculty are being expected to fill that gap,” Williams said. “It’s not fair to faculty and it’s not fair to students.”

The UIC faculty union is specifically demanding the university institute a voluntary program that screens students for undiagnosed learning disabilities and refers students to accommodations and treatment. In a statement, the union says the faculty is only asking for the same screening program and mental health resources offered at the school’s sister campus in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

Williams said the screening program would provide “excellent guidance” for faculty, and as an educator herself, she notices when individual students may have an undiagnosed learning disability that is holding them back. However, with hundreds of other students to teach, faculty are often forced to support struggling students and make accommodations on their own time.

“Mental health services are offered to other students in the [University of Illinois] system, but for some reason they are not offered to our students,” Williams said. “There is a historical precedent of UIC students being overlooked, and we want to push back against that.”

Compensation is another major sticking point in contract negotiations at UIC, and the union said faculty salaries have not kept up with inflation despite record enrollment at the university for the past seven years.

UIC’s press office did not respond to a request for comment by the time this article was published. The faculty union said negotiations were at an impasse as faculty called the strike this week, and the strike will continue until a tentative agreement is reached with the university.

Full disclosure: Maya Schenwar, president of the Truthout board and a former editor, is married to a member of the UIC faculty union.

This story has been updated with comments from AFT President Randi Weingarten.