Bellmore, Merrick districts focus on mental health education

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School officials in Bellmore and Merrick will step up their efforts to make mental health a fundamental part of students’ education in the 2018-19 school year.

An amendment to the State Education Law, which took effect July 1, requires schools throughout New York state to teach mental health to students in elementary, middle and high school — including helping them to understand emotional and mental wellness, and when to seek help for themselves or others.

Michael Harrington, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Central High School District, last week called the new push “a game-changer in public education.”

Mental health experts say that unrecognized, untreated and late-treated mental illnesses elevate the risk of crises such as suicide and self-injury, diminish prospects for recovery, and contribute to substance abuse and other damaging negative coping behaviors.

Harrington said his district already implemented mental health education into the curriculum last year, but plans to expand the programming.

“It’s important,” he said. “Our district is taking a step further than a lot of others, and the social-emotional well-being of our students has become a top priority.”

The new law requires all teachers to be trained in awareness for signs of depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns, as well as how to take the appropriate actions after recognition. The staff in the Central District received the training last year, Harrington said.

Harrington added that the high schools’ health curriculum was also revised last year to include education about mental health for students. Guidance counselor and mental health teams are being expanded to reach more students, and after-school wellness centers will be open once a week throughout the district for any student needing help.

If the program is a success, the schools will add more days to the after-school session, and a similar program will come to the Grand Avenue and Merrick Avenue middle schools, Harrington said.

The state amendment does not specify curriculum content. Rather, the State Education Department put out a “Framework for Mental Health Instruction” on the day the law took effect, providing guidance for developing effective mental health education instruction in the classroom, and looking at how to embed mental health and well-being within the school’s environment more broadly.

Harrington noted that the Central District already met most of these requirements after its mental health revamp last year.

At a June 18 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent John DeTommaso explained that the after-school sessions will also include social groups and parent workshops.

“We’re just hoping to be a place where kids and families can come to handle lots of issues,” DeTommaso said. “And a place to point people in the right direction that may be more helpful and equipped to handle the issues.”

Half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Teaching young people about mental health is a means of early intervention and prevention, which holds the best prospect for effective treatment and recovery.

Schools are encouraged to use community partners to educate students and build collaborative relationships that can connect students and families with community resources for treatment and support.

Merrick School District Superintendent Dominick Palma chairs a committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse for the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. The group has started meeting with stakeholders to explore outside resources.

His district’s social-emotional learning curriculum, he said, is also already meeting most of the mental health standards — except for how to seek help.

Lakeside School in Merrick began using Lions Quest, a social-emotional learning curriculum, about four years ago. The district’s other two schools’ staff received training two years ago and fully implemented the program last school year.

Palma said that an initial review suggests that the curriculum addresses most of the education department’s framework.

“If children’s mental health needs are not addressed, we can’t expect them to learn well,” Palma said. “When they go beyond school, we want them to have in place what they’ll need in the real world. These new regulations are going to wake people up to say, ‘Let’s refresh what we’re doing, bring it up-to-date, refresh our curriculum instruction.’”

Palma also said that the Nassau County Board of Educational Services was working to organize mental health-oriented training for school district staff.

Eden Laikin contributed to this story.