For Brian Kulas, whose struggle with psychological issues dates back to the first grade, the proposal to provide age-appropriate mental health lessons to New Jersey schoolchildren — starting in kindergarten — makes perfect sense.
“The problem was, I never had anyone to turn to. There was no education whatsoever,” said Kulas, who works with the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness as an advocate for underserved residents. Things got worse year by year, Kulas explained, and in seventh grade he tried to kill himself. “Mental health education is vitally important,” Kulas told a legislative panel on Monday.
Lawmakers seem to share his concern. The Assembly Education Committee voted unanimously Monday in favor of legislation designed to create a mental health curriculum for public schools that would begin in kindergarten and run through high school. The Senate approved the proposal 34-0 in March; the Democratic-sponsored measure now heads to the full Assembly for a final vote.
Current standards in the Garden State stipulate that public schools must include lessons on how mental health impacts overall wellness; they also specify that instruction on suicide awareness and prevention be given as part of comprehensive health and physical education. And in 2016, New Jersey adopted legislation that required mental health and suicide prevention on college campuses.
There is growing evidence to suggest that psychological issues can develop early and can best be treated when addressed promptly. According to the American Psychiatric Association, half of all mental illnesses begin by age 14 and three out of four take root before age 24.
Early signs of illness
“Major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder rarely appear out of the blue. Most often family, friends, teachers or individuals themselves begin to recognize small changes or a feeling that something is not quite right about their thinking, feelings or behavior before an illness appears in its full-blown form,” the APA’s Dr. Ranna Parekh noted in July 2018.
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 now ends their own life every 12 minutes in the United States. New Jersey has one of the lowest suicide rates nationwide, one that declined 13 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to state officials.
Still, nearly 700 people in the state killed themselves in 2016 and suicide remains the third leading cause of death among teens here. In addition, researchers at Rutgers University have noted a recent uptick in suicide attempts among pre-teen girls in New Jersey as young as 9 years old.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the rising suicide rates — and a growing concern about school shootings — have prompted changes in the mental health curriculum in several states. In 2018, New York required that schools provide training in psychological wellness from kindergarten through high school. Virginia added these subjects for students in ninth and 10th grades. South Carolina is also considering related legislation, Pew said. Florida, Minnesota, Texas and Washington are all looking to beef up mental health awareness on some level.
In New Jersey, lawmakers on Monday merged three existing proposals — two from the Assembly, plus a Senate measure (S-2861) into a single substitute. The measure is championed by Assembly members Gary Schaer (D-Bergen), Joann Downey (D-Ocean), Dan Benson (D-Mercer), John McKeon (D-Union) and Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson).
As drafted, the proposal would update New Jersey statute to require that school districts ensure health education programs for K-12 “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 measure also calls for age-appropriate lessons on recognizing warning signs and preventing suicide. The process would be overseen by the state Board of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Education, with input from other state agencies and clinical experts.
“This [bill] really personally struck home with me,” Kulas told lawmakers, noting that he only learned of the proposal the previous night but felt compelled to come to Trenton to testify. Reading the text brought back the struggles he encountered early in school, he said.
“I felt different and really felt a distance from the other students,” he said. “But I was in first grade. What was I supposed to know?”