Mental health teaching is now required in schools


The Wantagh, Seaford and Levittown public school districts will be among those tasked this fall with incorporating age-appropriate mental health education into the curriculum for all grades.

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.

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.

Dr. Marc Ferris, assistant superintendent for instruction in Wantagh, said his district has been reviewing and developing new curricula related to mental health and student wellness for all students in kindergarten to 12th grade for the past year.

“In addition, the Wantagh Board of Education approved hiring a K-5 guidance counselor to deliver curriculum and support for our elementary students and a new part-time social worker to support our secondary schools,” Ferris said. “Finally, Phase One of our five-year plan addresses the social-emotional needs of our students as well as ensuring that we are compliant with all upcoming New York state regulations.”

The Levittown School District’s assistant superintendent for instruction, Todd Winch, said the current curriculum there already incorporates many of the components of the recently released mental health requirements.

“In order to ensure we provide the best possible education for our students, we are working with a curriculum committee made up of teachers and administrators to make any necessary enhancements to our program for this upcoming school year,” Winch said. “”This fall, our support staff will be meeting with representatives from [local child and adolescent mental health programs] to further expand our relationship in order to better meet the needs of our students.”

Dr. Adele Pecora, the Seaford Public Schools superintendent, said her district is aware of the new law. “Mental health education is an important topic,” she said, “and our curriculum and staffing will adequately support the law.”

The 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.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14. 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 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 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,” he 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 uptodate, refresh our curriculum instruction.’”

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