Facing Toxic Stress in Childhood: Behavioral Health Blog Series

Legal Council for Health Justice’s Behavioral Health Blog Series focuses on the lack of trauma-informed care available to Chicagoans facing mental and behavioral health challenges. This series was authored by Grace Moran and Rachel Roberts.

Legal Council’s Children & Families program works with many children experiencing complex trauma. In our work to connect children to the educational and social support they need to thrive, we regularly see how our institutions fail to provide families with trauma-informed services.

Children in the United States are disproportionately affected by economic inequity, making up 33 percent of all people living in poverty. Living in poverty, particularly during childhood, increases the likelihood that an individual will experience trauma and toxic stress that can have lifelong effects on mental and behavioral health. Nationwide, it is estimated that half of all children experience a traumatic event before reaching age 17. In communities with high rates of poverty, this number is likely much higher. One teacher at an elementary school in East Garfield Park estimates that all of her students have experienced a traumatic event. Despite these daunting challenges, we know that when systems and relationships are in place to adequately support children with trauma-informed care, they can still thrive. 

However, we see our systems fail children and families and even exacerbate their obstacles every day. We need to fundamentally alter our institutions to stop causing further toxic stress in the lives of children living in poverty through societal and systemic trauma. For example, growing up in and living under the racism present in our institutions has been found to cause the same toxic stress as individual trauma. 

Our education system also frequently exacerbates children’s mental and behavioral health issues by treating students punitively. One of our child clients, Marquis, was reading at a kindergarten level in sixth grade and was behaving disruptively in class due to his frustration. He was regularly sent home early or sent to the principal’s office, and did not receive any meaningful support for the challenges he was facing. Our advocates were able to get Marquis re-enrolled at a school that was more equipped to handle his needs, but his original school’s inability to work with his complex needs indicates an unacceptable status quo.

“Our advocates see a lack of understanding about trauma and its effects in all of the systems that people in poverty encounter, from schools to public benefits offices.” said Sarah Hess, Staff Attorney on Legal Council’s children and families team. “For example, children are constantly reminded of the trauma inflicted by police against individuals and communities of color when they see police in their schools. There are many reasons police shouldn’t be in schools, but the traumatic effect on children’s learning should be reason enough to get police out of schools.”

Recognizing the high rates of negative mental health outcomes in children, the Illinois legislature passed the Children’s Mental Health Act in 2003, which created the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership (ICMHP). This partnership was tasked with developing a comprehensive plan to coordinate mental health services for Illinois children and their families, primarily by promoting community collaborations to support youth mental health and educating and supporting a workforce that provides mental health services and support to children. The ICMHP also mandated the statewide expansion of the Screening, Assessment, and Support Services (SASS) program, which serves as a crisis support program for youth experiencing psychiatric emergencies. 

However, there are still drastic changes to be made. Providing care for mental and behavioral health issues once they arise is not enough. While we must expand crisis support for children, we must also make sure that our society is trauma-informed so that children and families in Illinois are not being re-traumatized by the systems in place to support them. We will not seriously improve behavioral and mental health outcomes without adjusting our systems to be more in tune with the lived realities of the people they exist to serve.