Teaching children about their mental health is underway in classrooms across New York State. WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley says a new mental health curriculum has been rolled out for the new school year.
As students returned to classrooms last week, districts began mental health instruction as part of health and physical education classes. A state law now requires mental health instruction for all students in Kindergarten through 12th grade. But as we found out some districts pinpointed the need for mental health awareness well before the law was implemented.
“We’ve been doing that already and one of the things we are proud of is we have a K-to-5 health program with a teacher dedicated to K-5 health instruction. A lot of that is around wellness,” stated Michael Cornell, superintendent, Hamburg Central Schools.
Cornell said they recognized a few years ago some students were having issues.
“You know in this case - it’s a curricula issue but a moral imperative. Public education is a lifeline for families and for children and one of the few institutions left that for a lifetime, can level the playing field for young people” Cornell remarked.
The state declares New York as 'the first in the nation' to implement the law. But in Virginia a similar law does require a mental health curriculum, however, it is for students in 9th and 10th grades.
“We just need to understand that kids come to school with a lot of baggage that helps them or hinders them,” stated State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.
Elia tells WBFO News the State Education Department is providing all the resources to support the new curriculum.
“Part of it is also looking to the community to provide resources for particular kids and families that need it, but we have too many children across New York who are constantly in trauma and we need to address those issues,” replied Elia.
"New York State is one of the worst state's in the nation of identifying problems in the early grades in working with the kids,” said Phil Rumore, president, Buffalo Teachers Federation.
Rumore said too many students are dealing with trauma.
“But as a kid, I didn’t know any of my friends that were shot to death. I didn’t have to worry about drug dealers. I could go out on the street and play ‘punch-ball’. Our kids can’t do that,” Rumore noted.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness says one in five of those 13-through 18-years of age will experience a ‘severe mental disorder’ some time in their life.
“You know something – you have to be grateful that the kids are doing as well as they are because of what they are going through, especially with all the murders going on, but we need ways to identify the kids that need the help as early as possible,” Rumore said.
In the Buffalo School District, chief of Intergovernmental Affairs, Dr. Will Keresztes, tells us the new curriculum folds in Trauma Informed Care that they've already been providing.
“So it’s really taking what we’ve already been doing with the staff throughout the district and making sure it becomes a viable curriculum for students,” Keresztes explained.
The Buffalo School District has 56-school based mental health clinics and will also add Mental Health First Aid training for some parents and teachers.
Suicide remains the third leading cause of death for those 10-to 24-years of age. The Hamburg District has already trained the entire staff, including bus drivers, in Mental Health First Aid. Superintendent Cornell says that gives specific direction on the topic of suicide.
“The training actually teaches us to ask the question – are you thinking about killing yourself because it’s actually hard to say those words. The common misperception has been if someone thinking about it – don’t ask them about it because it might make them more likely to do it, but research says something quite different,” Cornell said. “You’re not going to make them more likely to do it if you ask about it. The outcome is really only likely to be either they’re going to say nothing about it or that maybe they’ll tell you or in some cases they will tell you.”
“We are not talking about a deep dive into Psychology 101 or anything like that,” Glenn Leibman responded.
Liebman is the CEO of the Mental Health Association of New York State. He tells WBFO News they’re very pleased with the response from school districts.
“It’s just a basic knowledge about mental health and the supports that people can have if they need and who they can talk to about these supports, and depending on the age and grade level – it’s all positive things that I think school districts have been yearning for,” replied Liebman.
The new curriculum should provide teachers, students and families with the tools to meet mental health challenges - generating more awareness, prevention and treatment of mental illness.
As part of our Mental Health Initiative, you can join us for a 'Facebook Live' discussion about the new Mental Health curriculum for students Wednesday at 1'o'clock on our WBFO Facebook page. Eileen Buckley will lead a conversation with New York State Regent Rep Catherine Collins for Western New York, Hamburg Central Schools Superintendent Michael Cornell and Niagara Falls City Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie.