A group of students and educators pressed a common message at the state Capitol last week: mental health matters, and we all deal with it.
Scores of students, counselors and teachers took that message to state lawmakers as part of an annual lobby day organized by the Mental Health Association of New York State. Using the slogan “mental health matters,” students from around the region and state highlighted how mental health affects all students and teachers at some point.
“Mental health matters to me, because it is everyone's issue,” said Kirsty Ihenetu, a junior at Bethlehem High School. “If you look around here to every single person around you, next to you, you don't know what they are going through.”
Lauren Flagg, a junior at Shenendehowa High School, said she has dealt with anxiety in recent years and has missed school as a result. Flagg meets with a counselor at school who is assigned to students struggling with similar challenges; she said she had a difficult time finding a counselor to visit outside the school system.
“I can't focus my mind, it's so clouded with other stuff,” Flagg said.“I know I really needed an outlet; it helps having a neutral professional to talk to.”
In 2015, New York became the first state in the country to mandate mental health education in schools as part of the broader health curriculum beginning in kindergarten and lasting through the end of high school. As schools grapple with the rising mental health needs of youth, advocates of the mental health education law hope it will serve as the foundation for teaching students about how to recognize mental health challenges not only in themselves, but in their families and friends as well.
Now that every student in the state will be taught about mental health and the resources available to them, advocates say, students can usher in a generation of mental health-informed citizens. A $1 million grant in last year's state budget enabled The Mental Health Association to establish a resource center for schools as they transitioned to meet the new health education mandate.
“This was not going to be one-and-done, overnight and schools are in compliance,” John Richter, director of public policy for the Mental Health Association, said in an interview earlier this month. “We knew it would take time, (the schools) would need support.”
Working with educators in local districts, including Shen, the association developed sample lesson plans and has conducted teacher training sessions in districts across the state. This month, the association is conducting “Mental Health 101” seminars in local districts, that not only educate teachers how to recognize mental health issues in their students, but also how to address them appropriately. The association hopes it can maintain and expand the resource center as schools continue to infuse mental health more deeply into their curriculums.
While the governor's budget proposal includes $500,000 to keep the resource center going, the association is calling for the full $1 million to continue developing material for and hosting training sessions in school districts.
“A lot of teachers don't have a great understanding of mental health, some do and some do a great job,” said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association. “The whole genesis of what we are trying to do here is not to make teachers clinicians, that's the last thing we want to do, but we want them to have a real understanding about mental health.”
Liebman said the association and educators across the state are aiming for a broader cultural shift in how students think and learn about their personal mental health and how to attend to it throughout their lives.
“The long-term piece of this is really about changing the environment in schools to make it a much more mental health wellness environment,” he said. “We want to continue supporting schools, it's not going to end; if the funding goes away, the needs of schools in terms of mental health certainly are not going to go away.”
The mental health education mandate will play out largely as a preventative tool, providing students with a base of knowledge about mental health and wellness they can fall back on if they or loved ones find themselves dealing with mental health struggles. However, schools have already been dealing with an uptick in anxiety, depression and other mental health needs. District leaders have turned their attention in recent years to the mental wellness of their students, arguing it's impossible to teach kids basic academics if they can't focus on learning.
“If we don't focus on an individual's emotional health, mental health wellness, students can't learn and teachers can't teach,” said Becky Carman, Shen's director of policy and community development. “We have to ensure students' needs are being met, and there are lots of different needs that need to be met.”
While advocating in Albany, Niki Tebbano, a student support counselor at Shenenehowa High School East, said students are experiencing “elevated rates of anxiety” as they deal with myriad expectations on them. Mental health affects all students, Tebbano said, explaining how students present with a wide spectrum of needs.
“It's not mentally well or mentally ill,” Tebbano said. “We support students on a continuum.”
As students and teachers across-the-board become more aware about mental health, educators hope they will gain a better understanding of just what their students need.
“The more we become educated about what mental health issues are and where they may potentially derive from, we understand and learn more about our individual students,” Carman said.