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NY schools now must teach mental health

The goal is for earlier treatment to prevent the outcomes of untreated mental illness, such as suicide, addiction, failure to graduate and criminal activity, he said.

Starting this fall, New York schools are required

Starting this fall, New York schools are required to teach mental health as part of their health curricula. Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Starting this fall, New York schools are required to teach mental health as part of their health curricula.

The Mental Health Association of New York State has, using a $1 million state grant, established a resource center to help schools teach mental health well. And it’s finding that schools are on board, said John Richter, director of public policy.

“In many cases, they’re struggling with the challenges that are presented by their students,” he said. “They’re seeing a lot of mental health issues. If this can help students to recognize when they’re struggling, recognize symptoms and signs of mental illness when it begins and how to get help, that’s going to help everybody.”

One half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14, according to association data. But years often go by before they’re diagnosed and treated, Richter noted. The goal is for earlier treatment to prevent the outcomes of untreated mental illness, such as suicide, addiction, failure to graduate and criminal activity, he said.

Health already is included in curricula for all ages, but is segregated into its own classes in middle and high school with those classes generally taught by a designated health teacher.

Joshua Burgess, a therapist who works with children and families at Community Health and Behavioral Services, said a mental health curriculum could be helpful — depending on how teachers approach the subject.

“Kids won’t really care much about what they’re hearing,” he said. “I feel like we’re going to have to be very careful about how we deliver the message and make sure we’re delivering it from a place of caring and concern.”

He said he hoped for a discussion-based curriculum that would not just increase awareness among kids struggling with mental health issues, but also bring out empathy in their peers. He called for the teacher “who can actually motivate students, bring compassion in, empower students to stand up and step up for each other.”

The law doesn’t specify subject matter or minimum hours for mental health education. The New York State Education Department has issued guidelines.

When it comes to mental health, the New Hartford Central School District already relies on social workers to emphasize mental health awareness, a wellness committee to review education research, a teacher center for professional development to help teachers and students manage stress and a character education program that promotes social and emotional awareness, said Superintendent Robert Nole.

The physical education and health department conducted a curriculum review last year but will continue into this school year to integrate the state’s new social-emotional learning benchmarks, he said.

“We are confident that our faculty and staff make important efforts to promote skills such as social and self-awareness,” Nole said. “The new guidelines help ensure that our teachers have a common language of instruction with colleagues statewide.”

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