Discussing mental health in schools
Mental Health Awareness week was Oct. 7-13 in the U.S. and dozens of events were hosted, along with the one at Saxton Middle School.

Courtesy photo

Discussing mental health in schools



In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, officials from Patchogue-Medford School District, the Association for Mental Health and Wellness, the Mental Health Association of Nassau County, and the Mental Health Association in New York State discussed the local implementation of the new state law requiring mental health education in New York schools. In a forum at Patchogue-Medford’s Saxton Middle School, officials discussed how the law improves the lives of students. 

The law, which took effect July 1, amends the state education law to require that health education programs in all schools under the jurisdiction of the department recognize the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and the relation of physical and mental health, so as to enhance student understanding, attitudes and behaviors that promote health, wellbeing and human dignity. 

“This legislation updates New York State law to keep public education apace with our advancements in the understanding and treatment of mental health issues,” sponsors of the bill wrote. 

The National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that 19.1 percent of adults have had an anxiety disorder within the past year, 31.1 percent will experience an anxiety disorder in their lives, and 6.7 percent have had at least one major depressive episode.

“Everyone that I know knows someone who is close to them who is struggling,” said superintendent Michael Hynes, adding that he has a niece who battles a mental illness. 

New York and Virginia are the only two states with legislation that requires mental health education, and Hynes said it is critical if the country wants to take the issue seriously. 

According to David Flatley, superintendent of the Carle Place Union Free School District, 56 percent of superintendents who responded to a statewide survey this year said that improving mental health resources was one of their top priorities. And just over two-thirds of respondents said they have a “high concern” about the social and emotional needs of students, with 76 percent saying their concerns have gotten worse in the past five years. 

Flatley said there are multiple sources to blame, including social media, video gaming communities, easy access to “developmentally inappropriate” information, and the speed at which changes have occurred. 

“A competent, caring adult in relationship to every single child [is] critically important,” he said. “And then using those relationships to identify those who are struggling.”

Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York State, noted the positives of social media, especially the support of those who are struggling and are open about that struggle, acting as a support system for others. He said he has seen more students that are open to talking about mental health than in previous generations. Liebman is hoping that adding mental health education in schools will make it a more common discussion topic among families, even in a casual conversation about the school day or curriculum. 

“We want to make sure families have a greater understanding of mental health,” he added. “We don’t want families to feel that stigma and push back and say, ‘why are you teaching mental health in schools?’”

MHANYS led a five-year legislative advocacy effort that rallied mental health professionals and advocates in communities across the state to urge lawmakers to approve the legislation, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law in September 2016.

Approximately one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness. Additionally, about half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14, half of all cases of anxiety disorders begin as early as age 8, and about 22 percent of youth aged 13-18 experience serious mental disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.