NYS School Districts Hurry to Prepare Required Mental Health Classes

NYAPRS Note: Across NYS, schools are working hard to implement new legal requirements to offer mandatory mental health coursework per a law approved last session that passed in large part due to the dedicated advocacy of our friends at the Mental Health Association of NYS.

This policy is not without a fair amount of controversy. School based mental health education can help bring long needed understanding, sensitivity and support to students, families and schools across the country. Yet, some like national leader Leah Harris recently wrote in ACES Connection, “I don’t want students to suffer in silence and shame. But I am very concerned about just how this topic will be taught in schools.” See her piece at https://tinyurl.com/ybasl9j9 and in our next posting.  

NYS School Districts Hurry to Prepare Required Mental Health Classes

By Anna Gronewold  Politico  August 20, 2018

ALBANY — New York students will have mandatory mental health coursework beginning in the new semester, but advocates foresee a rocky first year for the program as hundreds of districts work to create or refine those lessons.

A 2016 law that took effect in July requires school districts to include mental wellness in health classes, emphasizing "the relation of physical and mental health so as to enhance student understanding, attitudes and behaviors that promote health, well-being and human dignity."

The state Education Department's 79-page guidance for what that should mean at a school level was released on June 29, two days before the law took effect. Now those districts, still in summer modes with teachers gone and more limited staffing, are scrambling to refine existing programs and create new curriculum before school starts.

Stakeholders are committed to the success of the program, but "the first year will be difficult," said New York State PTA Executive Director Kyle Belokopitsky, as districts currently vary in the level of their current programs, if they have them at all. Belokopitsky was part of an advisory group made up of educators, mental health professionals and advocacy groups guiding the roll out.

The state's guidelines are largely based on programs already in existence at Shenendehowa Central School District, said Becky Carman, the district's director of policy and community development, and chair of its Mental Health Committee.

The district had its own mental health curriculum for a couple of years before the state mandate, prompted by growing suicide rates and a concern that many students lacked connections where they felt safe, Carman said.

At least one in five students ages 13 to 18 experience some form of serious mental disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says "focusing on establishing healthy behaviors during childhood is more effective than trying to change unhealthy behaviors during adulthood."

In Shenendehowa, the goal is for mental wellness to permeate all layers of instruction, rather than offer isolated lessons to fulfill requirements. For example, a lesson on the best-selling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" could analyze the relationships among poverty and trauma and mental health, Carman said.

But for some districts, mental health is a new terrain, and requires a culture shift from teachers and staff to identify issues and eliminate stigma surrounding mental illness. Carman has been traveling the state with School Administrators Association of New York State to hold sessions for educators about developing their programs. At a recent session on Long Island, some educators were "beside themselves" about how they will incorporate new support systems without new resources, she said. The state is not providing additional funding to carry out the new law.

A $1 million state grant has been promised to The Mental Health Association in New York State for outreach purposes, though the group says it has not received the funds yet. The association set up a School Mental Health Resource and Training Center to support schools and this week will be releasing sample curriculum that build on SED's guidance, according to MHANYS chief executive Glenn Liebman.

For middle and high school students, the SED standards can be woven into required health classes, and will likely be addressed by designated health educators, Liebman said. The trickier part is K-5 grade lesson plans — which focus on nurturing positive relationships, feelings and decision-making — and will be taught by elementary school teachers.

At Potsdam Central School District in St. Lawrence County, Superintendent Joann Chambers said that she immediately knew her elementary school teachers would be overwhelmed by additional state standards on their already full plates.Chambers said her first thought was: "How are we going to make this work? The demands on educators are enormous."

The superintendent took it on herself to translate the guidance into The Positivity Project, an existing format the 1,350-student district uses to recognize and celebrate character strengths. Chambers said districts don't necessarily need more state funds for the law to be a success — they need trial and error, brainstorming and planning that have not yet happened due to the quick turnaround between SED's guidance and the school year's start.

"I'm not sure if money would really help this," she said. "What we need is time."

Any transition will likely be easier for larger districts like Buffalo, which has multiple mental health initiatives in the works. Buffalo began working two years ago to establish 56 mental health clinics in its schools.Teachers are currently trained in trauma, informed care and culturally responsive teaching. Mindfulness is also encouraged through projects like Yoga for Classrooms in a handful of schools.

Buffalo also follows a "Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model," which recognizes the psycho-social and physical environment of a student's mental health and the roles that the community and families play.

Buffalo will likely utilize MHANYS lesson plans to ensure its programs align with state standards and will continue to research other supplemental resources, Chief Academic Officer Anne Botticelli said.

"This work is of fundamental importance to the well being of our children, and we have been partnering with outside organizations and striving internally to provide direct support to our students," Botticelli said.

In Nassau County some districts are still waiting on additional guidance and training that won't take place until later this fall, said Ron Smith, a psychologist and former Merrick superintendent who was part of the advisory council. And the law doesn't explicitly say lesson plans must start the first day of school, he noted. Smith has been involved in workshops with Nassau County BOCES and Nassau County Psychological Association and has several planned throughout the month of September.

"I think people are motivated, but there will be workshops to help them," he said. "There's no requirement they have to do everything tomorrow."

Smith said he is curious about how many districts will simply follow the educational standards or whether many will also latch onto the optional resources and recommendations from SED that include addressing school climate and knocking down the stigma around mental illness.

"Districts will be in different shapes — different conditions— in their ability to move forward," Smith said. "If this was an easy problem to fix, there wouldn't be any more suicides."

Virginia is the only other state that mandates mental health curriculum.