New legislation signed by Governor Cuomo in 2016 requires that public schools in New York State begin providing instruction in mental health on or after July 1, 2018. The legislation was co-sponsored by Senator Carl Marcellino (R-Nassau) and Assemblywoman Kathy Nolan (D-Queens).
The new legislation adds mental health education to areas of learning that were already required by law, including education on the use and misuse of alcohol, tobacco and other substances and early detection of cancer.
According to Glen Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York State, “By ensuring that young people are educated about mental health, we increase the likelihood that they will be able to recognize signs in themselves and others that indicate when help is needed and how to get help.”
Why is this legislation so important? One in five adolescents ages 13-18 is diagnosed with a mental health problem, yet only 40 percent get help. The average time from onset to seeking help is eight to 10 years. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 12 high school students attempt suicide, the third leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds.
Teaching about mental health in schools and educating to reduce stigma is long overdue. There is great misunderstanding and fear among many who have erroneous ideas about people with mental illness. Consequently, young people suffering with mental illness walk around school believing that there’s something inherently wrong with them that will never change.
These children and teens often feel shunned, unlike their peers who have a physical health problem and who have others rally around them. I can vividly recall a news report and photo of a middle school boy afflicted with cancer who was receiving chemotherapy. In the photo he was surrounded by his teacher and a smiling group of classmates, all of whom shaved their heads in solidarity with him. Imagine if instead of cancer he was depressed and suicidal. There would be no such image of public support, only one of isolation, shame and despair.
A caring school community can offer a young person a safety net of meaningful and helpful connections. It is not unusual for a teenager to feel defective when struggling alone with a mental illness. Mental health education in schools can begin with mental wellness practices for children as early as four or five years old, for example, by teaching social skills and how to manage angry feelings.
As children grow they can learn about the concept of wellness including self-care and personal responsibility. They can learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of developing mental health problems, how to manage crises such as the risk of suicide and self-harm and how to identify appropriate services and supports for treating and maintaining recovery from mental illness.
I can already hear those voices that will decry using educational resources for addressing the emotional needs of kids. If that is your view, I ask you to consider that approximately 50 percent of students age 14 and older who are living with a mental illness drop out of high school. Youngsters’ mental health and their ability to learn and become productive citizens in the community and workplace go hand-in-hand.
We owe it to our children to support this vital new legislation by encouraging schools to incorporate meaningful education into the curriculum that reinforces the idea that mental health is an integral part of well-being. Our children need to learn that there is help that can lead to recovery.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director and CEO of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. Visit www.northshorechildguidance.org to find out more.