The overall goal of the initiative is to provide a “climate of support” around mental health, starting in school.

As of July 1st, it has been one year since New York began mandating mental health education in grades K-12 across the state. It was the first state to do so. Around the same time, Virginia also set a requirement to teach mental health education in the 9th and 10th grade.

Buffalo’s NPR News Station WBFO gave a brief picture of the state of mental health education in New York one year later.

One school district in particular, the Niagara Falls City School District in Western New York, has taken “a very enlightened and progressive view toward mental health education,” said Ken Houseknecht, executive director of Mental Health Advocates of Western New York.

Superintendent Mark Laurrie explained the thought behind his district’s approach to the state’s mental health education requirement—which he called “just a very low minimum bar that’s been set.”

“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,” he told WBFO.

On the other hand, peer advocates say that the young people they work with aren’t seeing this level of change. “I would ask 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,” said Julianna Hill, a youth peer advocate with Mental Health Advocates of Western New York.

Schools Create Their Own Mental Health Curriculums

New York’s mandate—which came about amid rising anxiety, depression and suicide among youth—requires school districts to educate students about mental health as part of their health class. The state did not develop a “uniform curriculum” to implement in schools—which puts some students at a disadvantage, Houseknecht explained.

However, it was a deliberate decision to allow school districts to experiment with their own curriculums.

“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.”

Successful curriculums have the potential to be scaled up to reach more students.

The overall goal of the initiative is to provide a “climate of support” around mental health, starting in school, said NYS Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia. “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.”

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