On October 3, 2016, Governor Cuomo signed legislation that requires all New York middle and high schools to teach mental health, starting in 2018. This was added to the existing health education program which now includes the topics of alcohol, drugs, tobacco and the prevention and detection of cancers. The intent behind this act is to help students recognize the early signs of impending mental illness and be encouraged to seek help. Schools will have to align the resources needed to assist these students.
Prevalence of Mental Illness in Youth
The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI)
reports that of adults living with mental illness, 50 percent experienced onset by age 14, and 74 percent by age 24. They also report that one in five youth live with a mental health condition. Nearly 80 percent of these individuals remain untreated.
Another sobering statistic: suicide is the third leading cause of death for the 10 to 14 age group, and the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 34. Over 90 percent of children who commit suicide have a mental health condition.
How Will Schools Deliver Mental Health Education?
The New York school system follows the requirement of one semester of comprehensive health education for all middle school and high school students. It is also specified that this course be taught by a qualified health education teacher.
Mental health advocates recognize that adding mental health to this one course will not suffice in identifying and helping students in need. In fact, many schools already include mental health in their health education course. It’s the teachers that students see daily who are in key positions to spot struggling students, and they need training and knowledge of how to help these students get to the proper resources. The generally understaffed counselors, social workers, school nurses and other support staff need to work closely with teachers and also to establish referral procedures to mental health resources and clinical professionals in the community.
The Role of the School in Meeting Mental Health Needs of Students
A safe and supportive school environment is fundamental to the well-being and academic achievement of students. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) cites a study in which a school climate of safety, connectedness and peer support were protective of mental and emotional wellbeing in students transitioning to secondary school. Other studies show that a climate of teacher support, peer support, student autonomy and consistency in school rules are associated with better psychological and behavioral adjustments and lower levels of depressive symptoms.
Better than to identify and treat mental illness is to prevent it. The spirit of the new mandate calls for imaginative solutions to stem the tide of mental illness that has been referred to as a “silent epidemic”. Schools have over a year to address this problem and prepare for the mandate. If the creativity of school staff and students is unleashed, much can be done to aid troubled students to find their way back to mental health.
Resources Needed to Help Schools in Addressing Mental Health Problems
Schools need help to effectively carry out the new mandate. The Mental Health Association of New York State (MHANYS) is drafting legislation that will provide basic mental health education to all teachers. NAMI advocates support for schools where trained community mental health professionals are brought into schools to provide mental health care. They have also developed training programs for school personnel on child and youth mental health as well as classroom materials for teaching students on how to ask for help.
Besides these, schools need federal and state funding to cover expenses for training and for services to carry out the mental health education mandate. Principals should not be forced into the position of managing debt to carry out an effective preventative program for the mental health of students.