It's fair to say that, in recent years, mental health awareness has improved dramatically. There are more public discussions about mental illness. There are more services available to most vulnerable populations. And there is more research being conducted into environmental and biological risk factors. Even with these advancements, though, stigma around mental illness still prevails. But a new law in New York state may help change that: Starting this fall, mental health will be taught to New York students, including preschoolers, as part of the broader health education curriculum. And mental health experts say it's a significant step.
The new legislation, which took effect July 1, amended New York state's Education Law to require mental health be included in the school lesson plans, according to NBC News. As part of the curricula, which school districts get to determine ultimately, students will learn about mental health as part of wellness, how to identify early signs of mental health issues, how to provide support to peers experiencing mental health problems, and how to combat stigma around mental illness.
The new law makes New York is the first state in the country to require mental health education in its schools, NBC News reported.
John Richter, director of public policy at the Mental Health Association in New York, told Governing of the new law:
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... We’re just updating the way we teach health. I don’t want teachers to think of it like drawing up a whole new curriculum. You can incorporate wellness in almost every subject.
But the legislation doesn't take a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health awareness. Under the new law, school districts throughout the state can choose how they will incorporate mental health education into their curriculum, according to Governing. Buffalo's public school district, for example, has planned to also train teachers and school staff in trauma-informed care so that they better understand the ways in which trauma and stress manifest and impact students, Governing reported.
Other school districts in upstate New York have taken other measures. The Tonawanda City School District, for its part, has added a peer mentorship program focused on mental health, as well as drug and alcohol misuse, while the Niagara Falls School District hired more social workers and school psychologists to work with children ages 3 to 7, The Buffalo News reported.
Mark Laurrie, superintendent of the Niagara Falls School District, told The Buffalo News in August:
Earlier grades is where we have the highest need for support ... and a better beginning for these kids will lead to a stronger completion, and hopefully we won’t see the mental health issue we have.
Niagara Falls, in particular, is laser-focused on improving mental health outcomes for its students. A Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey conducted by the city's school district in 2015 found that nearly 15 percent of its students said they've experienced suicidal ideation, while around 10 percent reported having attempted to die by suicide during the 12 months prior to the survey, according to The Buffalo News. This data, which are either on par or higher than overall state rates, have "an urgency in our staff," Laurrie told The Buffalo News.
In the end, New York's new mental health curriculum will help break down stigma around mental illness and give students the tools necessary to understand their own mental health needs — even if they may not have the vocabulary to define them. Still, it's important to remember that the new law is only one step in destigmatizing mental illness.
In order to make substantial progress, students, especially preschoolers, will also need support and access to comprehensive trauma-informed services. Without them, those students won't be able to cope, heal, and thrive as well as they could — and should.