Earlier this week, Politico featured a story about the MHANYS School Mental Health Resource and Training Center and the work that has been done since implementation of the School Mental Health Law in July of 2018. The successful implementation has truly been a team effort driven by the Center (and the tireless work of Amy Molloy and our team at MHANYS), our MHA members, SED, OMH, The Executive, The Legislature, our mental health colleagues, education stakeholders and most importantly the schools themselves who have a growing understanding of the importance about teaching about mental health in schools. Much more has to happen to ensure success but New York continues to set the path for the future.
One year in, school districts find their footing with mental health programs
By Anna Gronewold
05/17/2019 05:00 AM EDT
ALBANY — Last year New York’s schools introduced mandatory mental health instruction for every student from kindergarten to 12th grade, something no other state had attempted.
The education community predicted a rocky start after the requirement became law, because districts had limited time to align their plans with state guidelines and the state provided no additional funding or accountability measures to ensure implementation.
But over the past nine months, educators and advocates say districts have begun transforming the way they address mental health through creative experimentation and word-of-mouth dissemination of ideas. As a trailblazer on the issue, New York has to figure out best practices through trial and error, said Amy Molloy, a project director for Mental Health Association in New York State.
“It’s almost like we’re our own little petri dish of figuring out what’s going to work,” she said.
Molloy heads up the association’s School Mental Health Resource & Training Center, which received the mandate’s only financial commitment — an initial $1 million from the state — to help districts figure out their programs. The center has so far facilitated 120 professional development training sessions to more than 9,000 participants across the state. They estimate approximately 64 percent of public schools have used the center’s services — everything from curriculum templates to community partner suggestions to in-person analysis of how districts can expand on initiatives already in place.
That engagement is driven not by any threat of punitive measures but by administrators who realize the importance of mental wellness in schools and the potential consequences of ignoring it, they said. In a February survey, the majority of the state’s superintendents said if they had any additional funding for their schools, they would spend it on mental health services.
Most do not, and that means districts “are trying to cobble together what they can,” both in response to the new mandate and to a larger trend to take holistic approaches to student wellness, Molloy said.
In Port Jervis, for example, educators have been seeking out community partners, said the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction Nick Pantaleone. Groups like the local National Alliance on Mental Illness have come in to screen films and offer free programming on mental wellness for both students and staff, Pantaleone said.
Port Jervis set out to meet mental health learning standards by forming committees of staff, social workers and guidance counselors and sharing color-coded Google documents that they continue to update, Pantaleone said.
He said the relationship between mental wellness and learning has been groundbreaking for the district, which also incorporates initiatives like mindfulness instruction and kinesthetic learning.
The district also committed to getting all its non-education staff on board. In January the district had a conference to train unionized staff in recognizing symptoms and cultivating positive responses.
“We want to make sure our kids are engaged and have a positive relationship with one adult — that could be custodians or cafeteria staff,” Pantaleone said. “And with our staff — we want to make sure that if a kid has a suicidal ideation, they know what steps to take.”
A shared vision has been vital for Schenectady as well, said superintendent Larry Spring. The district been taking steps to become more trauma informed for years, since Spring insisted on bolstering social workers and support staff even as the district was facing major cuts in 2012.
The majority of classrooms have “calming corners” — spaces students can go for five minutes to reset when they start to experience anxiety and agitation that could cause them to “shut down.” Most important, they have teachers who are trained to recognize symptoms, Spring said.
In the past year, the district has assembled a team of social workers and a psychiatric nurse practitioner trained to intervene before children with more severe mental health crises are sent to the hospital. In 2016-17 there were 107 psychiatric hospitalizations of school-aged children in the district; in 2018-19 after the team was put in place, there were 55, Spring said.
Those are the kind of stories Molloy wants to mingle in New York’s “petri dish” and she said she is looking for ways to spread those ideas — from calming corners to community partnerships — to districts looking for manageable ways to incorporate mental wellness into their school culture.
From the onset, the association has been adamant that mental health in schools should be about cultivating mental wellness rather than diagnosing mental illness.
“It doesn’t have to be a top-down approach, as long as you have people who are champions for this, it is going to spread,” Molloy said. “It’s going to affect the climate, and teachers are going to learn from one another.”
MHANYS was looking for an additional $1 million for the resource center this year, and received half of that in the budget passed April 1.
There is still pushback, Molloy said, from some school officials who feel overwhelmed by another state mandate or who are uncomfortable dealing with mental health issues.
“I wonder sometimes if that comes from not understanding the connection between student mental health and learning,” Molloy said. “We as adults haven’t talked about mental health in so long. It’s not just a culture shift in classrooms; it’s a culture shift in society.”