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New Law Requires Mental Health Education in All Grades in New York Schools

Published July 5, 2018

New York students returning to school this fall will find to a new health curriculum that places an increased emphasis on mental health issues. Heightened attention to students’ mental health is required by state education law changes, effective July 1, 2018, that require school officials to deliver instruction on mental health issues for students in kindergarten through grade 12.

New York is the first state in the nation to mandate mental health education at all grade levels. Virginia also requires mental health education for its students, but only in ninth and 10th grades.

Although mental health education is already provided in some New York schools, the new law requires instruction on mental health issues in all schools across all grade levels. The principal objective of the new curriculum will be to develop “mental health literacy” in students, a term that describes the ability to recognize the onset of a mental health disorder and the knowledge of how to cope or seek treatment.

New York’s mental health education program is just getting off the ground. The particulars of implementation and funding are yet to be decided. Here at Littman Krooks, we intend to closely monitor the roll-out of the program for the benefit of our disabled and special needs student clients.

Mental Illness in Students Often Goes Untreated

The new mental health curriculum responds to what state educators see as a nationwide crisis in mental wellness, as students and adults struggle with emotional and psychological difficulties that they do not fully understand.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a group that provides free classroom training on mental health issues, more than half of all mental illnesses begin before a child reaches age 14. Yet these victims often wait years, even decades, before seeking treatment.

A recent study from the Center for Disease Control indicates that suicide among New York residents increased 29 percent from 1999 to 2016. While suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, it is the third leading cause of death for people age 10–24 and the second leading cause of death for people age 15–24.

New York’s new mental health education initiative was signed Sept. 30, 2016, by Governor Andrew Cuomo as Chapter 390 of the Laws of 2016. The law requires all schools to “ensure that their health education programs recognize the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and the relation of physical and mental health so as to enhance student understanding, attitudes and behaviors that promote health, well-being and human dignity.”

Recommendations From Advisory Group

Following enactment of Chapter 390, the New York State Education Department formed the New York State Mental Health Education Advisory Council, a group of 75 experts tasked with the job of promoting mental health education in schools.

Among the advisory council’s recommendations (PDF):

  • increase training for educators on mental health issues;
  • increase funding for mental health instruction in the classroom;
  • increase the frequency and amount of time spent on mental health education across all grades;
  • increase communication with parents and guardians regarding school and community mental health resources available to the family; and
  • develop new means to foster a positive school climate.

The advisory council recommended that students be instructed on mental health issues as early as pre-kindergarten, with increasing attention to mental health topics as they advance in school. For example, the advisory council suggested that students in elementary school should receive 20 lessons of health education (including mental) each year. A half-credit course should be taught in middle school and a full credit course should be required for high school students, the advisory council said.

The advisory council called for a “comprehensive approach” for enhancing mental health well-being for schools, students, families and communities. This approach should also include efforts to develop a positive climate and culture in each school.

The hope is that increased awareness of mental health challenges faced by students will result in increased awareness, prevention and treatment.

Over the summer New York state education officials will be developing a detailed implementation plan spelling out how local schools should include mental health education into their current health curriculum.

The advisory council will meet in December 2018 to review implementation of the new mental health curriculum.

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