Amid a troubling rise in suicide rates, New York and Virginia have become the first states to require mental health education in schools. The laws, enacted in March and June of this year, represent a positive commitment from these states to work against the psychological challenges facing adolescents today.
Causes of mental health struggles among students vary widely, as cyberbullying, relationship problems, and the pressures of balancing academic, athletic, and social responsibilities can weigh heavily on them. Furthermore, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that between 13 and 20 percent of school-aged children experience a mental disorder like depression or ADHD—and that suicide is a leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24. These figures speak to the urgency of developing curricula aimed at helping young people to cope.
Written to this effect in 2017, the Virginia bill was sponsored by state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds. His own son had committed suicide four years earlier, and after a group of students presented proposals for addressing mental health issues in schools, he decided to champion their cause:
“I was impressed by their thoughtfulness, because a lot of these young people had seen bullying [and] depression. They had seen classmates that had died by suicide. It’s part of tearing down the stigma and providing some equality with those that struggle with mental health.”
The new law requires updates to the Virginia Board of Education’s Standards of Learning with respect to mental health in ninth- and tenth-grade classes.
The New York state law cites the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Lawmakers hope that, with the opportunity to learn about mental health issues and the understanding that health is multidimensional, students will be able to “more effectively recognize signs in themselves and others, including family members, and get the right help.”
While New York has required health education in schools for over forty years, it has thus far focused primarily on physical health. The newly enacted law clarifies that mental health is an integral part of the equation for K-12 students as well.
The challenges facing students are real and consequential. As mental health issues persist in America’s schools, more states should join the fight by mandating a proactive curriculum.
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