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New School Year, New Mental Health Lessons: 2 States Now Require It

States are starting to integrate mental health into their curriculum -- whether it's English or biology class.

Student stressed in class.
As students across the country start a new school year, some will be learning about mental health for the first time.

In two states, New York and Virginia, public schools are now required to incorporate mental health into their curriculum. New York's law, which took effect July 1, applies to elementary, middle and high schools. In Virginia, the state is developing standards for integrating mental health education into ninth and 10th grade -- the age when half of mental illnesses start cropping up. 

These laws come at a time when teen suicide rates have doubled among girls and risen 30 percent among boys in recent years. At the same time, the stigma surrounding mental health is lessening -- though still prevalent -- in part because of the opioid epidemic, which has more people talking openly about addiction and mental health.

The New York law leaves it up to schools to craft what the curriculum looks like. 

"What we’re not doing is teaching Psychology 101. It’s a public health approach to teach kids more about when they or someone close to them is experiencing a mental health crisis," says John Richter, director of public policy at the Mental Health Association in New York state, which is helping educators create lessons that are scientifically accurate and trauma-informed. The bill allocated funds for the creation of the School Mental Health Resource and Training Center that Richter's organization will run. 

It took several years of unsuccessful lobbying attempts by mental health advocates before the bill was passed and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016. Richter says most of the opposition came from teachers unions, who worried about the additional burden they felt would be placed on them. Richter stresses that that shouldn't be the case.

"We’re just updating the way we teach health," he says. "I don’t want teachers to think of it like drawing up a whole new curriculum. You can incorporate wellness in almost every subject."

For instance, Richter says The Scarlet Letter might be used in English classes to teach about stigma, or biology class could be a place where students learn about how synapses in the brain can cause mental illness.

Richter says they’re telling school administrators and teachers, "'You don’t have to have this built and perfect overnight. We know it’ll go out in phases. Get your lesson plans in place, and we’ll be there to help you along the way.'"

The students won't be the only ones learning about mental health. Teachers are getting extra training, too. According to the Buffalo News, Buffalo school districts are "expanding trauma-informed care training to help teachers in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades understand how trauma affects people."

Meanwhile, Niagara Falls schools are hiring more psychologists and social workers, and another nearby school district is starting a peer mentorship program to help students with mental health as well as substance abuse.

Virginia already had a requirement in place for general mental health education from seventh to 10th grade, but this new law requires the state's department of education to consult with experts -- like the National Alliance on Mental Illness -- to develop a more stringent set of standards using the latest research and best practices. The department of education hasn’t given a timetable for when the new curriculum will be released, but it’s expected to take three years at the latest.

Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, the Democrat who introduced the bill, says it was largely a bipartisan effort. There was concern, however, from some Republican lawmakers over how much overhauling the standards might cost. So far, those concerns appear to be overblown.

"Frankly," he says, "we haven’t heard a word from the department of health or education that this will have any sort of extra costs."

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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