Mental health education is now mandatory in the state of New York. A new law, initiated on July 1st, requires that all New York public schools incorporate mental health education into their curriculum for elementary, middle school, and high school students.
The law will transform traditional health classes. Rather than just discussing and exploring physical health, students will now learn more about emotional well-being and how to deal with mental health issues. Furthermore, they will learn how to identify problems surrounding mental health.
“I think that educating students in mental health starting at a young age is beneficial in several ways. When you introduce something to children when they haven’t formed concrete opinions and they are still impressionable, we are given the opportunity to reduce stigma surrounding mental health. Another reason I think it is beneficial is because it will raise awareness to students and educators on the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and hopefully provide methods and suggestions in steps to take to seek professional help, or coping skills that can be implemented throughout a school environment. The curriculum is going to have to be really tailored to a fifth graders lens (when being taught at that age) and the teachers are going to need significant professional development in implementing the curriculum with fidelity,” says Jessica Kreisler, an elementary special education teacher in New York, NY.
Discussing mental health is a crucial part of a strong health curriculum. Each year, over 1 in 5 New Yorkers demonstrate symptoms of a mental disorder. It’s vital that students of all ages are educated on the topic of mental health, as half of lifetime mental illnesses start by the age of 14.
“I like the concept. Seventh or eighth grade is where most mental illness presents itself first in kids, and [by educating them on these topics by that time] we can teach our kids to be more empathetic towards others while also helping them understand what they’re currently potentially experiencing,” says Kayla Life, a middle school guidance counselor in Brooklyn, NY.
Sasha Powell, a middle school teacher in Brooklyn, NY, agrees: “I’m a very big advocate for social and emotional health and awareness in schools. As a teacher, I try to employ it as much as I can, even if that includes giving a list of strategies that students can try whenever they’re feeling a certain way– but there are limitations. As a teacher there’s only so much you can do, so having a health professional in the classroom can address a lot of the concerns and issues in our community.”
Sardia Anderson agrees that it’s essential to talk about mental health with students, especially when considering that many of them have been exposed to trauma. “Many of our young people struggle with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental concerns, so it’s extremely imperative that we cater to them daily in an educational setting. Education is merely about content specific catering, but a holistic approach that could help liberate and elevate young minds.”
Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York, commented on the change, saying, “This groundbreaking law lays the path to better health for all New Yorkers”. No other state has implemented a law like New York’s. Hopefully, this change will inspire other areas of the country to join in on the conversation about mental health and make it a core part of every child’s learning experience.