New York and Virginia are the first states to enact laws that require schools to include mental health education in their curriculums.
The New York legislation, which was written in 2015 and enacted on Sunday, directs all K-12 classrooms to get instruction about mental health as part of the overall health curriculum. Virginia’s law, which is set to take effect this fall, is less wide-reaching, requiring mental health education for the first two years of high school.
The New York law does not specify an additional curriculum but clarifies that mental health falls under the purview of the state’s overall health curriculum.
“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,” the New York law reads, adding that the new education requirements seek to open up dialogue about mental health and combat the stigma around the topic.
Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York State, one of the lead groups that lobbied for the law, said, “We didn’t fight for specific curriculum because we recognize that what is taught in one part of the state might not be relevant in another part of the state.” The association developed nine core concepts that should be incorporated into the mental health curriculum, including identifying appropriate professionals and services, and the “relationship between mental health, substance abuse and other negative coping behaviors.”
The Virginia law says that the state’s board of education will collaborate with mental health experts to update education standards.
“Such health instruction shall incorporate standards that recognize the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and the relationship of physical and mental health so as to enhance student understanding, attitudes, and behavior that promote health, well-being, and human dignity,” the law reads.
More than 90 percent of youth who die by suicide suffer from depression or another diagnosable and treatable mental illness, and students who have mental illnesses are less likely to succeed in school, according to the New York law.
In 2017, 11.01 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode that year, according to Mental Health America. For people 10 to 24 years old, suicide is a leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Virginia law was passed after state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) saw that three high school students had researched, developed and presented the proposed legislation, which struck close to home for the legislator, who had lost his son to suicide in 2013. He introduced it in the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year, and the legislation was signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in March.
Debbie Plotnick, vice president for mental health and systems advocacy at Mental Health America, said that the laws are a major step forward in addressing mental health. She said she hopes other states will follow suit.
“We think it is essential that mental health not be something that is spoken about in whispers but is something that is part of overall health, both practice and education,” Plotnick said. “Major mental health conditions are almost always manifest in, if not childhood, certainly by adolescence.”
Young children also experience mental health conditions, though they don’t always know how to speak about it.
Regarding the Virginia law, Plotnick said, “It’s never too early to have folks being educated.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.