New York will be the first state to require mental health education in schools

Elementary school counselor meets with students. (Getty Images)
Elementary school counselor meets with students. (Getty Images)

In the United States, an estimated one in five children — ages 3 to 17 — has a mental illness. That is more than the number of kids with diabetes, cancer, and AIDS combined. This figure, which translates into 15 million kids nationwide, might be a surprising one — but it shouldn’t be. The scientific community has been sounding the alarm on mental illness in youth for decades, urging doctors, parents, and educators to dedicate time and resources to the issue.

Finally, New York legislators have listened. In July, the state will make history as the first to enact legislation requiring all elementary, middle, and high schools to incorporate mental health education into their curricula. Like physical education, mental health education will cover a wide range of areas, striving to reframe mental health as “integral” to overall health and giving students the tools to cope with a disorder in their own lives.

If successful, the program could act as a road map for other states looking to follow suit and usher in a sea change that’s long overdue.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), half of all lifelong mental illnesses appear by the time a person turns 14, and 75 percent by the age of 24. Along with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, other common mental illnesses found in kids include depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder), and bipolar disorder.

The main group behind the New York legislation is the Mental Health Association in New York State (MHANYS), a nonprofit working to end the stigma attached to psychiatric disorders. Two advocates from the organization penned a 19-page document covering the landscape of mental illness in children, as well as outlining the bill’s specifics and vision for implementation. 

“Unrecognized, untreated, and late treated mental illness elevates the risk of mental health crises such as suicide and self-injury, diminishes prospects for recovery, and contributes to substance abuse and other damaging negative coping behaviors,” the report reads. “Many adults miss or dismiss early signs and symptoms, and young people are even less likely to recognize or understand what is happening to them. … The result is often as tragic as it is unnecessary.”

Indeed, if knowledge surrounding children’s mental health is lacking, treatment is even worse. A study from NIMH found that just 36 percent of youths with a lifelong mental illness will receive treatment — and those who do often face inadequate follow-up. A breakdown of the specific disorders paints a worse picture. According to the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children with mental health and learning disorders, 80 percent of kids with anxiety disorders do not receive any treatment, nor do 60 percent of those with depression.

The results of these untreated conditions can be catastrophic. Children and young adults with mental illnesses have lower high school graduation rates, a higher risk of addiction, and are four times less likely to be employed. Of the 2 million children and young adults arrested each year, between 65 and 70 percent have a mental health disorder.

Beyond the obstacles that young adults with mental disorders face in the outside world are the injuries — sometimes fatal — that they inflict on themselves. Each year, more than 150,000 kids between 10 and 24 are treated for self-inflicted injuries in the ER, and one in 12 teens have attempted suicide. Of those who die from suicide, 90 percent experienced mental illness.

“The reality of when most mental illnesses begin is obscured from our view because most of us don’t recognize the signs and symptoms when they appear, ignore them, or mistakenly confuse them with other characteristics of adolescence such as changes associated with puberty,” the authors of the legislation write. “This is a tragedy.”

The good news: There is proof that “mental health literacy” — educating students about mental health — can help stymie these issues. The concept of mental health literacy was pioneered by an Australian researcher named Anthony Jorm, who has been studying the idea for over a decade. In a 2012 report in the journal American Psychologist he found that those who were taught about mental health in an educational setting were more likely to seek help from professionals when faced with their own issues.

After suggesting options for the curriculum, the MHANYS advocates’ report closes by echoing Jorm’s findings and pointing out the potential impact of the legislation, which could turn the tide of the mental health epidemic in kids.

“[This law] is a profound legislative achievement of which many future generations of students will be the fortunate beneficiaries,” the report’s authors write. “They will be fortunate because they will understand that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, kept secret, ostracized for or feared. They will be fortunate because the truth about mental health will cultivate stigma-breaking empathy for others. They will be fortunate because they will know that there is hope for recovery and meaningful, purposeful living in spite of mental health challenges.”

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