As of July 1st , an important but little publicized piece of legislation took effect.  The new law  (referred to as Mental Health Education in New York Schools) mandates that public schools to teach mental

health in physical education and health classes. As a mental health counselor, I am overjoyed and want to explain why this long overdue directive is so vitally needed.

Historically, mental illness has been feared and avoided in the public mind. Due to its complexity, it has been regarded differently than physical illness and has acquired a stigma which suppressed open discussion and education.  Because of this silence and lack of instruction, instead of knowing how to recognize nascent emotional problems or how to respond, students often do nothing and thus other wise avoidable tragedies occur.  As advanced as the 21st century is in so many areas of science and technology, when it comes to mental health, the level of public awareness is still woefully inadequate and filled with many misconceptions, myths and false beliefs.

With the enactment of this new law, New York state has become a pioneer in redefining and expanding health education to include mental well-being and other psychological issues. Along with Virginia, New York is the only other state in the union to ensure that future generations will not be left in the dark concerning mental health issues. Its educational mandate is designed to equip students with a comprehensive and up to date understanding of the crucial information concerning mental health and  psychological disorders.

While the, the law was originally a response to the alarming rise of drug use and suicide in the teenage population, it quickly expanded to include broader issues involving emotional problems. Specifically, the areas to be covered include:

  •  An integrated model of health which understands emotional and physical wellness as inter-related and not separate.
  •   Definitions of mental health and wellness which include personal responsibility and guidelines for self-care maintenance and good mental health habits and practices.
  •  The recognition of the signs and symptoms of developing mental health problems.
  •   Instruction in the awareness and management of mental health crises such as the risk of suicide, self-harm and other mental health crises.
  •   The relationship between mental health, substance use and other negative coping behaviors.
  •   Irrational stigma and cultural attitudes toward mental illness on treatment seeking behavior and as a contributing factor in discrimination against people with mental illnesses.
  •  Treatment and recovery from emotional problems.
  •  Risk factors for emotional disorders.
  •  Identifying community resources, professionals and services for treating and maintaining recovery from mental illness including family/social supports.  © 2017, Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc.

In addition to, and perhaps even more important than, the specific information that the classes will provide is the modeling of open discussion which breaks the silence which has long surrounded mental health issues. Fear and ignorance are perpetuated by the absence of discussion where in sharing feelings, questions and concerns is acceptable.  Having programs which explicitly address not only facts but also feelings and cultural attitudes can go a long way to normalize and make comfortable talking about things which were heretofore implicitly forbidden or, at least, very uncomfortable.

While the internet and media have vividly raised awareness concerning the prevalence of mental health problems, reliable educational resources have been lacking to help young folks (as well as adults) understand the nature of the mental health problems or provide guidance for those seeking help. This law marks a major step forward to address a vital subject neglected by our public schools.  The new programs will go a long way to eliminate fear and anxiety as well as to provide basic information about how to maintain emotional well-being and detect psychological problems before they become serious or life threatening.

To find out more, please contact. or the Syracuse chapter of the Mental Health Association

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC     Fayetteville   7 10 2018