New York and Virginia Enforce Mental Health Curriculum

Two states, New York and Virginia, are the first to officially add mental health education classes to their curriculum. While they have taken different approaches to the issue of rising patterns of mental illness among younger generations, they both are attempting to de-stigmatize mental health. New York’s new law calls for classes on this subject to be taught in kindergarten to twelfth-grade classrooms. Virginia has a less extensive program only requiring students to participate in these classes during the first two years of high school. According to the CDC, rates of suicide have increased dramatically since 1999—by 30 percent, in fact. While this statistic only points out a correlation between mental illness and suicide, there is still something to be said for the increase in people not knowing how to deal with their struggles or their mental illness. Can this new education initiative help solve that?

Courtesy: Eric Ward

 

New York’s law states that more than 90 percent of youth who die by suicide suffer from depression or another mental illness that is diagnosable and treatable. The hope of lawmakers is that adding mental health education to the curriculum will spark discussion about certain topics. In doing so, they hope to increase understanding about the issue and hopefully figure out how to solve it. Ideally, this discussion will go beyond the school environment, sparking a conversation about mental health in homes, between friends and in other communities. This is the first step to having a better understanding of what people with mental illnesses go through. The law states: “By ensuring that young people learn about mental health, we increase the likelihood that they will be able to more effectively recognize signs in themselves and others, including family members, and get the right help.”

Virginia’s law began in an unexpected way. Three high-schoolers: Lucas Johnson, Alexander Moreno and Choetsow Tenzin, researched and developed legislation related to mental health after noticing alarming trends within their own high school class. They were inspired by what they heard, saw and experienced from their classmates and decided to change the way mental health was often glossed over in the school curriculum. They attended a summer institute for political leadership at the University of Virginia to help learn how to spearhead a movement. The team then spent months studying mental illness and mental health before they started pushing for county-wide initiatives and publicizing issues. They got the superintendent of Albemarle Public Schools to include $160,000 in her proposed budget for the next school year, which is enough to add a mental health professional to the school system. These efforts soon caught the attention of Senator Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) who has a connection to the issue. His son struggled with mental illness and eventually committed suicide after he wasn’t able to receive help. He sponsored a Senate version of the bill that the students proposed, which sparked a corresponding movement within the House of Representatives (introduced by Delegate Rob Bell [R. Albemarle]). While Virginia previously had some mental health included in the state’s Standards of Learning, this law gave the state an opportunity to re-examine what they had put in place and determine if it was adequate.

Courtesy: Lucas Johnson

 

These laws are the first steps to a wider understanding of mental illness. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 live with a mental disorder. By educating people about what mental illness looks like, hopefully, we will be able to change this statistic.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.