BUFFALO (WBFO) – July 1 marks one year of New York State’s first-in-the-country mandate that schools incorporate mental health into K-12 health education. Officials and educators told WBFO the new law has created an environment in which schools and teachers can experiment, and that one Western New York school district has emerged as a standout.
The pioneering requirement to educate students about mental health was grounded in the recognition that mental well-being is just as important to overall health as physical health, according to the written justification for the legislation. It also comes amid vast research showing that depression, anxiety and suicide have risen sharply among American teens and young adults over the past decade.
“The drama doesn’t stop anymore at the end of the school day,” said Julianna Hill, 22, referring to the role that technology and social media plays in the lives of young Americans. Hill is a youth peer advocate with Mental Health Advocates of Western New York who has struggled with mental illness herself. She spoke to WBFO’s Nick Lippa in a Facebook Live conversation with Kaitlyn Ledzian, also a 22-year-old youth peer advocate, as part of WNED | WBFO’s Mental Health Initiative.
Hill and Ledzian said they’re glad the state now requires mental health education, but that the quality of instruction and support varies significantly across school districts. That’s because the new mandate doesn’t dictate a set curriculum.
“Without a uniform curriculum, it does leave districts quite a bit of latitude to develop programs that are not shared across the entire state,” said Ken Houseknecht, executive director of Mental Health Advocates of Western New York. “And the downside to that I think is obvious: some work, some don’t. And for those that don’t, the students in those districts aren’t getting the full benefit of what they could be.”
But when districts develop strategies that do work, Houseknecht said, there’s an opportunity to scale them up across the state. He pointed to the Niagara Falls City School District as one example others could look to.
“It’s not a particularly wealthy district. It’s a district that’s undergoing radical demographic change, and yet they’ve taken a very enlightened and progressive view toward mental health education.”
Superintendent Mark Laurrie said his district is going above and beyond what the state law requires.
“It’s our belief in Niagara Falls that opportunities like more drama, more theater, more dance, more athletics, more outside participation—from chess to karate to musicality—those are also mental health programs,” Laurrie said. “The law and the regulations are just a very low minimum bar that’s been set. We’ve tried to expand it to seeing, ‘Where and when of every part of a student’s life and day can we interject ourselves?’”
Laurrie’s vision is a stark departure from what Hill, the youth peer advocate, said she has heard from students she worked with over the past year.
“I would ask actually some of the youth, ‘What have you noticed in your school?’, and they’d be like, ‘Well, it was one class, in health class, out of the entire year. And that was it.’”
“They’re trying. How hard? We don’t know,” said Ledzian. “We’re really trying to push for presentations talking about mental health awareness, our peer advocacy role, and then also peer support groups in the schools.”
Regional and state officials told WBFO that local autonomy was built into the new mandate purposefully.
“Those schools out there who [are] developing their curriculum know their populations,” said Dr. Catherine Collins, New York State Regent for Western New York. “Sometimes, a district may have had many more suicides than others, and so of course their concentration will be on those areas that cause children to be so depressed that they take their life.”
New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia said the initiative is about more than just coursework.
“It is creating a climate in a school of support,” she said. “And that should be supportive of students, but also of the faculty that’s working with them, and the families.”
Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, according to the World Health Organization. Early intervention and treatment can help mitigate the impact of mental illness on the lives of young people. New York and Virginia became the first American states to require mental health education last year, but Virginia’s legislation applies only to high schools.