Mental Health Education Starting in Kindergarten?

State lawmakers to vote today on measures that would require school curriculum to include age-appropriate lessons on mental health

Credit: Creative Commons
New Jersey could join a small but growing handful of states that require public schools — in some cases starting in kindergarten and running through high school — to include mental health education as part of the curriculum, under proposals up for a vote today.

The state Senate is poised to vote on two pieces of legislation that would make school districts include age-appropriate lessons on mental health and psychological wellbeing as part of the health and physical education curriculum. One measure calls specifically for the inclusion of suicide prevention instruction; it also suggests the need to discuss the impact of substance use on mental health and provide students with connections to support services.

The proposals — both of which passed the Senate Education Committee with unanimous support earlier this month — grew out of a desire to help youngsters identify mental health challenges early on, before they escalate; experts note the majority of mental health issues first emerge in teens or young adults, and treating them at this stage can reduce the severity of the disease. The bills, which were backed by mental health advocates and education officials, also reflect a desire to expand the public’s understanding of health and fitness to include psychological factors.

Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic) is a prime sponsor of the measure.
“Mental health is just as important as physical health,” said Sen. Kristin M. Corrado (R-Passaic), a lead sponsor on one of the measures. “Adolescence can be a confusing and stressful time. We need to make sure teens are comfortable asking for support.”

New Jersey is not alone. According to a recent article from the Pew Charitable Trusts, growing concern about school shootings and a rising suicide rate among teens, has led a number of states to take action.

Half of mental illnesses begin by age 14

Last year, New York enacted a law that added mental health to the curriculum for students in kindergarten through high school, or K-12, Pew reports. Virginia chose to require a similar approach for high school students in 9th and 10th grades, and Florida opted for a regulatory requirement. Now South Carolina is considering its own law.

It is particularly important to teach these subjects early, experts note, since half of mental illnesses begin by age 14 and three-quarters take root before age 24, according to the American Psychiatric Association. “Learning about developing symptoms, or early warning signs, and taking action can help. Early intervention can help reduce the severity of an illness. It may even be possible to delay or prevent a major mental illness altogether,” the association notes.

Nationwide, the overall suicide rate has escalated by 30 percent in less than a decade, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; someone takes their life roughly every 12 minutes in the United States. New Jersey actually has one of the lowest rates nationwide, a rate that declined 13 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to state officials. Still, nearly 700 people killed themselves in 2016 and suicide remains the third leading cause of death among teens here.

In 2016, the state adopted a measure designed to expand access to mental health services and suicide prevention on college campuses in New Jersey. Lawmakers have also proposed legislation that would expand services in lower school grades, including requiring annual depression screenings, starting in middle school, and expanding state funding for counseling and support services. And a 2005 law appears to already require some level of suicide prevention instruction in schools.

The state also runs several confidential hotlines with experts available 24/7 to help individuals in need or concerned family members and friends. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is a national service that connects callers of any age to local crisis centers. And the New Jersey Suicide Prevention Hopeline, 1-855-654-6735, enables callers to talk to a trained peer counselor or mental health professional.

Bipartisan support

The proposals up for consideration by the Senate on Thursday include Corrado’s bill (S-2861), also sponsored by Sens. Richard Codey (D-Essex), a longtime advocate for mental health programs, and Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the health committee chairman. An assembly version of the bill awaits a committee hearing.

The measure would require the State Board of Education to consult experts and update the learning standards that relate to health and physical education to include mental health lessons, at appropriate points, for students in grades K-12. Districts would be required to ensure the lessons, including segments on substance abuse, are indeed taught.

These programs must “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, well-being and human dignity,” the text notes.

“Enacting this legislation will play a critical role in breaking the stigma of mental illness in schools, helping the future leaders of New Jersey to grow and mature into successful young women and men,” Corrado noted.

The other measure (S-3172) is sponsored by Sens. Joseph Cryan (D-Union) and M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who chairs the education committee; an assembly version is awaiting committee review. During the Senate hearing on the measure, Ruiz said she is also working with Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Gloucester) to create a joint Senate-Assembly committee to examine the broader issue of mental health in schools.

Suicide prevention

This measure also calls for the state board to amend the same set of learning standards to require that school districts include mental health lessons, specifically with suicide prevention information. The lessons would start in elementary school and run through high school, according to an amended version of the bill, and should incorporate evidence-based standards that are appropriate for students’ age and understanding.

Cryan said the proposal grew out of a town hall he did in August with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in Union Township; it also incorporates elements of the New York State law. One of the speakers at the town hall was a high school student who talked about the suicide of a good friend and the need for greater mental health programs in school.

“It was very moving,” Cryan said. “Everyone just went silent.”

According to the Cryan/Ruiz proposal, the curriculum can also stress the role mental health plays in overall wellness, the role of personal responsibility, awareness of suicide and self-harm, and warning signs related to these actions. Lessons can also touch on the connection to substance abuse, stigma and cultural attitudes regarding mental illness, and connecting with support services.

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