Most states have laws mandating health education in primary and secondary schools, but New York will be the first to emphasize mental health instruction for all grades. The move follows legislation signed into law in 2016 and slated to take effect in July 2018, in time for the new school year.
While teen angst has long been considered part of growing up, mental health officials have noted a disturbing increase in the percentage of young people who have reported having a major depressive episode.
The first signs of mental health problems begin, on average, at about 14 years old, yet the average age that individuals seek help is 24. School-age children are particularly vulnerable, with 8 percent of students nationwide having attempted suicide in the past six months, according to the Mental Health Association in New York State.
Moreover, 60 percent of high school students who have a mental illness do not graduate from high school.
Mental health not emphasized
Mental health education had already been part of the New York’s curriculum, but it had been lumped into the category of “other required health areas.”
“As a general rule, many schools throughout New York state are not teaching students about mental health even though the regulatory definition recognizes it as part of health education” says John Richter, director of public policy at the Mental Health Association in New York State.
As a result, he says, “The reality of when most mental illnesses begin is obscured from our view because most of us don’t recognize the signs and symptoms when they appear, ignore them, or mistakenly confuse them with other characteristics of adolescence, such as changes associated with puberty.”
The new curriculum will help students and teachers recognize the signs of a potential problem, and reduce the associated stigma. Although details are still being finalized, core elements in New York’s mental health curriculum are expected to include:
self-care and personal responsibility for one’s own mental health
making mental health an integral part of overall health
recognizing the signs and symptoms of developing mental health problems
managing mental health crises such as suicide and self-harm
relationship between mental health, substance abuse and other negative coping behaviors
how negative cultural attitudes impact people seeking treatment and contribute to discrimination against those with mental illnesses
recovery from mental illness
identifying appropriate professionals, services and family supports for treating mental illness