Mandated mental health education in public schools seems to be trending across the country. New York and Virginia pioneered this concept in the summer of 2018, becoming the first two states to pass a law requiring mental health education in public schools. This past summer, Florida and New Jersey passed similar laws.
Let’s take a look at the new mental health education laws and their approach:
- Effective July 1, 2018, mental health instruction for students in kindergarten through 12th grade is required.
- Nine core concepts should be incorporated into the mental health curriculum, including identifying appropriate professionals and services, and the “relationship between mental health, substance abuse and other negative coping behaviors.”
- Health teachers will be called upon to develop lesson plans that describe the disease of mental illness, methods of treating it, and healthy coping techniques students can use to protect themselves and their friends from the mounting pressures of school life.
- New York’s law doesn’t prescribe a specific classroom curriculum for mental health, leaving the details up to the board of education.
Read more here: New York State Assembly summary memo
- In July 2018, Virginia passed bill SB953, requiring schools to incorporate mental health education into 9th and 10th grade curriculum.
- A group of students who attended summer classes at the University of Virginia decided to develop a statewide mental health educational program. They approached Senator Creigh Deeds, a Democrat from Charlottesville, who sponsored the bill. Senator Deeds had a son who had stabbed him and later committed suicide after being denied psychiatric services in 2013.
- The legislation requires the Board of Education to review and update the health Standards of Learning for students in grades nine and ten to include mental health.
- In 2019, Senator Jennifer L. McClellan has already expanded the language to include all grade levels, not limiting the requirement to ninth and tenth graders.
Read more here: Virginia Legislative Senate Bill 953
- Florida has required that students in grades 6-12 receive at least five hours of mental health instruction on an annual basis.
- Each Florida public school must have a Mental Health Assistance Allocation Plan in place by the 2019-2020 school year to ensure that each student has access to a mental health professional at school. Schools must train educators and other school staff to detect and respond to mental health issues, and connect children, youth, and families who experience behavioral health issues with appropriate services.
Read more here: Florida Session Bill 7030
- On August 9, 2019, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation that requires all New Jersey public schools to include mental health instruction in K through 12 health curriculums.
- This requirement takes effect for the 2020-2021 school year.
- The bill (S2861) requires the State Board of Education to review and update the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education to ensure that mental health education is incorporated in K through 12 health curriculums in an age-appropriate way.
Read more here: State of New Jersey Bill A4500/4446
Will these laws improve the student mental health landscape?
Schools are going to need a lot of guidance with this new legislation, as no clear-cut curriculum or guidelines are set into place. Will the instructors be qualified to educate young people about mental health? What will be covered? Most importantly, how will these topics be covered in an age-appropriate way? These are all lingering questions with no definitive answers yet. All of these laws are being continuously modified to include additional supports.
The good news is, schools are finally taking a step in the right direction by acknowledging the growing numbers of students experiencing mental health issues and the severity of these issues. There seems to be a greater understanding that students are unable to thrive and reach their full potential in school while dealing with high levels of anxiety and depression.
Having these conversations in the hope of de-stigmatizing mental health issues is a start, but what will be done to supplement these conversations? After schools succeed in raising awareness, what physical interventions will they put into place to address the growing need? Students need in-school support that go beyond the scope and expertise of the child study team and school personnel.
Schools need to bring in trained clinical professionals and have them embedded within the public school. With this support system in place, someone is physically there to help students when issues are surfacing and can intervene early on before issues escalate. Students need counseling to learn how to cope, work through their issues, and be successful both inside and outside of the classroom. Families also need to be involved in the counseling process so that students get consistent support at home as well.
Let’s make sure we are doing more than just raising awareness. Let’s get students the help they need, which will lead to a healthier school culture and community.
Forward-thinking school districts are already making an impact with school-based mental health intervention programs. Here’s a helpful paper that explains what experts are recommending and how to get started.
Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Chris Leonard is Director of Operations for Sage Thrive and the Sage Day Schools. He is an experienced teacher, school administrator, social worker and psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Mr. Leonard is married with two daughters and enjoys distance running, mountain and road biking, hiking, and the outdoors.