A law, effective Sunday, will be implemented when regular classes resume in September

ALBANY — A law making New York state the first in the nation to require mental health education is now in place, and the state's online School Mental Health Resource & Training Center is open.

The law, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sept. 30, 2016, went into effect Sunday, mandating that mental health education be included in the physical health curriculum of all elementary, middle and high schools throughout the state.

“This groundbreaking law lays the path to better health for all New Yorkers,” said Glenn Liebman, CEO of Mental Health Association in New York State Inc., a not-for-profit organization that works to end the stigma against mental illness and promotes mental health wellness in New York state.

“By introducing mental health education at age appropriate levels, from elementary through high school, mental health will be normalized just as physical health is,” said Dr. Ann Sullivan, commissioner of the state Office of Mental Health. “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.”

The law is intended to expand mental health literacy among young people statewide. By emphasizing such, schools can prepare students with lifelong skills to understand mental health and wellness and increase their awareness of when and how to access treatment or support for themselves or others.

“Unrecognized, untreated and late-treated mental illness elevates the risk of mental health crises such as suicide and self-injury,” Liebman said. “Early treatment enhances potential for recovery and also diminishes negative coping behaviors such as substance abuse. Empowering young people with knowledge will have a powerful impact in helping them protect and preserve mental health and wellness for themselves and their peers.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said resources, developed jointly with MHANYS, on mental health instruction beyond the classroom will soon be provided to schools that will begin the requirement when they resume regular classes in September.

“The public is finally coming around to the notion that to properly address mental health issues, we must first acknowledge and openly discuss them,” she said.

Liebman discussed the law Thursday on the Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter, who mentioned mental health organizations are raising awareness about depression in the wake of the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both ruled suicides.

She noted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is seeing a rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in America.

According to its June report, “Vital Signs,” the CDC found suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016 with New York among 19 states seeing an increase of 30 percent.

“We definitely have an upswing,” Liebman said. “We have 26 affiliates across the state. They have consistently said that, as well.”

While there are a lot of social and economic indicators that lead people to commit suicide, Liebman said social media is a big one for young people.

“The negative impact of something like this is the consistency of bullying 24/7,” he said. “Used to be in the old days, you'd go to school, you might get bullied, the school day would end and the bullying would end, but now, in this world of cyber bullying, people bully constantly, 24/7, so, unfortunately, you've seen repercussions of things like this where young people ended up completing suicide.”

Liebman said the compelling statistic is that 90 percent of people who commit suicide do have depression, so it is a major factor.

“In terms of suicide prevention, New York is really becoming much more of a leader in that,” he said. “There's been a lot more funding recently to provide education about suicide prevention and what we can do as communities at large.”

He pointed to the new mental health law as one of the innovative things New York is doing to address depression and mental health issues, saying it will be incorporated into health classes as each district sees fit.

“One of the pieces we did not fight for in this legislation was to mandate curriculum because what you're mandating curriculum should be in Chautauqua County is going to be a heck of a lot different than what it's going to be in the Bronx.”

In October, MHANYS issued a white paper, “Mental Health Education in New York Schools,” that includes nine core elements it recommends be included in any school school health curricula.

As an example, Liebman said the organization does not want to talk about mental health as a mental illness issue.

“We don't want teachers to become psychiatrists or diagnosticians or anything like that,” he told Arbetter. “We want an understanding of the mental wellness of an individual and there are certain things you can do around mental health, specifically about mental wellness. We want to feel like this is a stigma-free environment. We want people to feel comfortable talking about mental health issues. We also want people to understand that most people recover from mental health issues.”

To help schools implement their own mental health curricula and serve as a resource for ongoing support, MHANYS is launching the School Mental Health Resource and Training Center, supported through grant funding from the state Legislature and governor.

The center will provide assistance and guidance through an online application, a hotline for school districts and a team of experts in education and mental health.

It will also offer mental health training for staff, and help schools establish community partnerships to meet the mental health needs of students and families.

Questions or requests for assistance may made at schools@mhanys.org

The full services will launch later this summer. MHANYS is building a dedicated team of experts to staff the center, and adding in-depth content to the online platform that will include lesson plans and information on the new law and mental health resources.