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Mental health education now required in New York schools

All elementary, middle and high schools across New York State now will be required to teach about mental health, under a new law that took effect this month.

Billed as the first of its kind in the nation, the legislation was signed into law in 2016, after years of lobbying by the Mental Health Association in New York State.

“If you look at the statistics about mental health-related issues, it creates a very compelling case as to why this is so important,” said Glenn Liebman, chief executive officer of the nonprofit.

Liebman cited these statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • About one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness.
  • Roughly half of chronic mental health conditions start by age 14.
  • Half of anxiety disorders begin as early as 8.
  • More than one-fifth of teenagers age 13 to 18 experience serious mental illness each year.

Education in schools can provide students with the lifelong skills needed to understand mental health and when to seek help for themselves or others, Liebman said. Early treatment can increase the potential for recovery.

But unrecognized and untreated, he said, mental illness raises the risk of suicide and self-injury, as well as negative coping behaviors, like substance abuse.

“It traditionally takes about 10 years between onset of mental health issues and before someone seeks treatment,” Liebman said. “One of the reasons we thought the law was so important was to reduce that gap.”

The goal is also to “normalize” mental health and reduce its stigma among children and parents.

“Through education, we can change people’s perception of mental illness and encourage future generations to ask for help if they’re feeling depressed or anxious, as easily as they ask for help for an injured leg or a sore throat,” Ann Sullivan, commissioner for the state Office of Mental Health, said in a prepared statement.

The mental health law took effect July 1.

Anecdotally, Liebman said, some schools have been doing a good job teaching about mental health for years, while in others there’s little mention of depression, anxiety or suicide.

While the law requires schools to provide mental health education, it does not mandate a specific curriculum. That’s why the Mental Health Association in New York State, which focuses on mental health advocacy and programming, is preparing to launch a resource and training center to help schools prepare for the upcoming school year.

Instruction would be included as part of any existing classroom teaching on physical health. In the middle and high schools, it would be taught by health teachers.

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