The focus will be on promoting mental health, well-being and human dignity

A new law going into effect July 1 will make New York the first state in the nation to require mental health education in grades kindergarten through 12.

“It is critical that we begin to teach young people about mental health early in their lives,” said Jeanne Beattie, a spokesperson with the state Education Department. “According to the National Institute of Mental Health, half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14.”

She said equally concerning is that according to the Child Mind Institute, age 6 is the median age of onset for anxiety disorders.

“This new mental health law provides an opportunity to keep conversations on mental health awareness, prevention and wellness in our schools in the forefront with our entire school community,” Beattie said.

The law, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Sept. 30, 2016, requires all elementary, middle and high schools in the state to provide instruction about mental health to all students as part of the school health curricula.

The legislation calls for health education to include mental health and the relation of physical and mental health. It is designed to enhance student understanding, attitudes and behaviors that promote health, well-being and human dignity.

Glenn Liebman, CEO of Mental Health Association of New York State (MHANYS), said his organization has been pushing for the legislation for years.

He said some schools have been doing a really good job and some have had hardly any mental health education at all. Liebman noted one in five youthshave a mental health issue.

“We felt it was doing a disservice to students to not bring it up,” he added. “The biggest issue that we face is the stigma around mental illness.”

Liebman said people see horrible things happen and it gets framed as someone with mental illness, but the reality is an incredibly small percentage of acts of violence are committed by people with mental illness. He said on the other hand, people with mental illness are 12 times more likely to be victims of violence.

“I like to think that in some ways things have gotten better,” Liebman said. “I think there is less stigma than there used to be. I think young people are more accepting of mental illness and talking about mental health issues.”

Another big issue, he said, is there is not enough money and resources to help people with mental health issues and too many end up in jail or homeless instead of getting support.

Mental health issues in schools include the opioid crisis Liebman said is rampant around the country, bullying and cyber bullying.

MHANYS and the state Office of Mental Health are developing a list of recommendations, an instructional guidance document and evidence-based resources to enhance education in schools.

Liebman expects the guidance to be released in early June. He said the idea is for the group to come together and identify materials.

He said what districts teach will be geographically and demographically determined by districts based on their individual needs.

“There is no mandate,” he said. “What might be relative in Ontario County is going to be different than what's going to be taught in the Bronx. There is no right or wrong answer.”

Mental health is a hot topic in schools throughout Ontario County and will be the subject of the next Superintendent's Advisory Council in the Naples Central School District.

Superintendent Matt Frahm said this is the first year he set up the council, which consists of 20 students in grades 7-12 who meet monthly to talk about issues going on in the district. He asked that the April meeting be about mental health.

“I think oftentimes some of the best ideas and suggestions you get are from the students themselves,” Frahm said, noting he was impressed they recognized and included the school nurse and a woman who coordinates the student support room among the invitees, along with counselors, school psychologists and administrators.

Frahm, who said he thinks most kids struggle with mental health issues such as depresssion and anxiety, noted schools are not just starting to support dealing with mental wellness or mental health.

“We're really focused on how we can do a better job of helping students who are coming to us with mental health issues,” he said. “I think most kids struggle with mental health issues. Adolescence is tough. Being a teenager has never been easy.”

Added to the mix are social media, concerns about screen time, issues related to an increasing poverty rate and the impacts of traumatic or adverse childhood experiences.

At Naples, kids have adults they can talk to about challenges they're experiencing in and out of school. There are running lunch programs with the kids, helping with bullying and depression issues. Frahm said the counseling department extends into classrooms with education on mental health issues.

“We know we need to do more about educating our kids,” he said. “We've got people doing good things right now. We want to make sure we're doing the very best job we can to support kids.”

Frahm is also requesting $35,000 in bullet aid from Sen. Rich Funke for the district to help offset the costs of added mental health support.

“Perhaps more than ever, the faculty and staff of the Naples Central School District are seeing students experiencing issues involving mental health,” he wrote to Funke. “Powerful forces related to substance abuse, poverty, underemployment, trauma, technology and transcience are putting new pressures on youth, and unfortunately, our community lacks the resources needed to provide support.”

His district serves families in Ontario, Yates, Steuben and Livingston counties in an 118-square mile area which he said has zero practicing counselors, compared to other parts of the state that have social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists.

“In addition, the fact that 49 percent or our students now qualify for free and reduced price meals suggests that families lack the funds needed to transport their children to mental health appointments on a regular basis,” Frahm said.

The district plans to spend between $54,000 and $64,000 to beef up its services. That would include $28,000 to $38,000 for Family Support Centers, through the Partnership for Ontario County; having a Child Mind Institute professional consult with or make a presentation to the district; money for Naples representatives to attend mental health conferences; and staff professional development summer training.

Matt Nelligan, a Funke spokesman, said if bullet aid is included in the state budget, due to be approved by April 1, the senator plans to fully fund Naples' $35,000 request. He added they believe the bullet aid will be included in the budget.

Nelligan noted Funke also recently provided the district with funding to train peer counselors through the Sources of Strength program, a universal program designed to build socioecological protective influences around youth and to reduce the likelihood that vulnerable youth and young adults will become suicidal.

To get ready for the statwide implementation of required mental health education, MHANYS members have been conducting forums and conferences to talk with educators and administrators in the field.

MHANYS is also part of a state Mental Health Education Advisory created by the state Education Department, consisting of 70 expert cross-disciplinary partners to share their expertise and resources.