For too long in New York – and around the country – mental health has been the stepchild of the health care field. Instead of being treated as a medical condition that required treatment, it was viewed almost dismissively, both by insurers and by society. The approach could be summed up in four words: Just suck it up.
That’s changing, if slowly. The Affordable Care Act, for example, declared mental and behavioral health to be essential benefits. Now, New York State is moving to arm children with information about mental health. It an important development.
Under a law that took effect this month, all elementary, middle and high schools across New York are required to teach about mental health. If that seems novel, it is. The law, signed two years ago, is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States.
It may also seem novel because of the unfortunate tradition of treating mental health as something other than what it is: an ailment that, like high blood pressure, cancer or nearsightedness, requires trained, medical intervention. But it’s still health and children should, in age-appropriate ways, learn about it.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health:
- About one in five American adults lives with a mental illness, while about half of chronic mental health conditions start by age 14. Those are crisis levels.
- 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.
Teaching children about mental illness won’t prevent it from occurring, but it can arm students with skills needed to understand it and to know when to seek help for themselves or others. And while early treatment can make recovery more likely, when it goes unrecognized and untreated, mental illness increased the risks of suicide, substance abuse and other harmful behaviors. Long-term costs, individual and societal, are baked into lack of attention. We all pay. The new law seeks to lower the costs to all.
“It traditionally takes about 10 years between onset of mental health issues and before someone seeks treatment,” said Glenn Liebman, chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association in New York State, which pushed for the new law. One its goals, he said, is to close that gap.
This a measure that needs to be implemented diligently, as part of the general health curriculum. With it, New York may be able to spare many of its children from a lifetime of suffering while setting a wholesome example for the rest of the country.