After long battle, mental health will be part of New York’s school
curriculum

Advocates: Teaching mental health at a young age could lead to early
detection, prevention

By Bethany Bump
Published 11:14 pm, Saturday, January 27, 2018

As a health teacher for the Shenendehowa school district, Dustin Verga sees
firsthand the pressures today’s youth are under.

They’ve grown up in an era of over-testing, jam-packed schedules, high
expectations to get into a top college, and dual lives — one in the real
world and one online, where the pressure to curate a picture-perfect life
and rack up “likes” is ever-present.

That’s why the introduction of mental health literacy in New York schools
this coming fall is such a big deal, Verga said. For as long as anyone can
remember, schools have taught children about physical health — food and
nutrition, accidents and disease, mood-altering substances — but
conspicuously absent has been the role mental health plays in a person’s
overall well-being.

“I think my students can identify when they’re feeling stress or anxiety or
something else, but I don’t think they understand how to cope with it,” he
said. “They don’t know that, just like you might need to rest if you’re
sick with the flu, you might need to take care of yourself if you’re not
feeling right mentally.”

Youth and mental health
• One in four people are diagnosed with mental illness over the course of
a year in the U.S.
• Half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14.
• Half of all lifetime cases of anxiety disorders begin as early as age 8.
• 22 percent of youth ages 13-18 experience serious mental disorders in a
given year.
• More than 60 percent of young adults with a mental illness were unable
to complete high school
• Young people ages 16-24 with mental illness are four times less likely
to be involved in gainful activities, like employment, college or trade
school.
• Those with a psychiatric disability are three times more likely to be
involved in criminal justice activities.
• Each year, 157,000 children and young adults, ages 10-24, are treated at
emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.
• One in 12 high school students have attempted suicide.
Sources: American Psychiatric Association, National Institute of Mental
Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

That could change starting July 1, when a hard-fought-for 2016 law to add
mental health to the school curriculum goes into effect. The law makes New
York the first state to require, not just encourage, schools to teach
mental health, said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in
New York, a lead advocate behind the law.

What took so long?

The idea of teaching young people about mental health is not a new one.

The mental hygiene movement of the early 1900s introduced society to the
concept that mental wellness could be just as important as physical
wellness.

In 1928, a nationwide group of superintendents recommended that mental
hygiene be included in the teaching of health education, but it was not.

“When you talk about mental health and mental illness, people are still,
because of the stigma, in the closet about it,” Liebman said. “People just
don’t talk about it like they talk about physical illness.”

Social media has strengthened the movement to de-stigmatize mental illness,
he said. “People are being more candid about their mental health issues and
seeking support and using social media as kind of a fulcrum for gaining
support, peers and friends in their recovery,” Liebman said.

Making the case

Advocates of the law want people to know they are not pushing for students
or schoolteachers to become diagnosticians. They say that is best left to
professionals.

Adding mental health literacy to the curriculum will provide youth with the
knowledge of how to prevent mental disorders, recognize when a disorder is
developing, know how and where to seek help and treatment, strategies for
dealing with milder issues, and strategies for supporting others who are
struggling.

“This is a real opportunity to educate youth about mental health and
wellness, and to do it in a positive and comprehensive way,” Liebman said.
“It’s really about empowering youth.”

Misconceptions about mental illness, experts say, include believing
individuals who suffer from it are more likely to commit violence than
those who do not (the opposite, actually: they are more likely to be the
victims of violence), or that recovery from mental illness is not possible
(it is). Or, more broadly, the belief that mental illness only presents in
obvious ways, such as behaving strangely, hearing voices or hallucinating.
On the contrary, the most common mental illnesses are anxiety disorders.

The onset of mental illness often begins at a young age, advocates say, so
early education is crucial.

Half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14, according to
the American Psychiatric Association, and half of all lifetime cases of
anxiety disorders begin as early as age 8.

In addition, 22 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience serious mental
disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental
Health.

“If these statistics seem startling, it’s because the reality of when most
mental illnesses begin is obscured from our view because most of us don’t
recognize the signs and symptoms when they appear, ignore them or
mistakenly confuse them with other characteristics of adolescent such as
changes associated with puberty,” reads an October 2017 white paper by the
Mental Health Association in New York State.

Teaching young people how to identify signs and symptoms early on, or
prevent them altogether, will only serve to benefit the populace at large,
advocates say.

Untreated mental illness can have a devastating impact on individuals and
society, according to research and statistics kept by the World Health
Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others.

The leading cause of disability worldwide? Depression.

The common link among the nine out of 10 people who die by suicide? They
suffer from depression and other mental or substance abuse disorders.

The economic cost of untreated mental illness in America is more than $100
billion a year. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses cost the
world upward of $1 trillion a year.

The next steps

In a survey last summer, superintendents identified the issue of student
mental health as one of their top concerns going into the current school
year.

Local school districts will be in charge of developing their own curriculum
and lesson plans, but the state Education Department is in the process of
developing guidance from its Mental Health Education Advisory Council, of
which both Liebman’s group and Verga are a part.

The concepts should appear in health education curriculum being taught in
grades K-12, and must be age-appropriate, a state Education Department
official said. Advocates hope the state will pay to help train teachers in
the new curriculum, but it appears unlikely in a tight budget year.

Verga, who has been teaching health at Shenendehowa for four years,
recalled seeing something click with his students when one day, he implored
his students to remember that just like a broken arm is a physical injury,
mental disorders and illnesses are a neurological injury — not a failing of
character or willpower.

“We happily give people a cast to fix their broken arm, but we don’t
necessarily give people who have mental health issues the same kind of
treatment or understanding,” Verga said. “We look at them differently, and
that really needs to change.”

bbump@timesunion.com • 518-454-5387 • @bethanybump

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