About a year ago, Loretta Whitson heard a story about a student in California who stopped herself from going to a school-based mental health clinic after the student’s peers teased her for trying to go.
When Whitson, who is executive director of the California Association of School Counselors, heard about that student’s experience, she began working with State Sen. Anthony Portantino to draft a mental health curriculum requirement.
“I thought, ‘How do we do this? How do we destigmatize mental health?’” Whitson said.
On Jan. 1, a new law sponsored by Portantino took effect, mandating that the California Department of Education include mental health in state standards by Jan. 1, 2023. Districts must begin teaching the new curriculum by Jan. 1, 2024.
The law requires that middle and high school students learn the signs and symptoms of conditions such as depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In California, students will also be required to learn how to seek assistance within their school system. According to the law, this will help promote awareness and allow for early intervention before a mental health crisis emerges.
The California mental health curriculum law was enacted just months after the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. The organizations said the crisis emerged from the intense toll of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating already existing mental health challenges for children.
Similar mental health curriculum laws have been passed previously in other states, including those first enacted in 2018 in Virginia and New York.
As of 2021, 13 states, not including California, had passed K-12 mental health education legislation, according to a report by Mental Health America, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those with mental illness.
Status of mental health curriculum laws by state in 2021
Mental health lessons are needed in K-12 because instruction can help reduce stigma and normalize support, Whitson said. Seeking mental health support should feel as normal as going to a doctor for physical health needs, she said.
The California law is a positive step forward, as students are likely going to face mental health fallout from the pandemic for years to come, said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI is a grassroots organization advocating for mental health services and research.
For Wesolowski it’s particularly critical that states are thinking about teaching students how to identify mental health conditions in themselves and their peers, including how to get help.
“We are deeply concerned around what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to youth mental health,” Wesolowski said. “The earlier we can intervene, the better we’re going to be as we deal with a very long mental health tail to this pandemic.”
What’s unique about the California law is that it considers cultural factors in mental health, she said, including the consideration of LGBTQ students, who can face higher rates of suicide.
As some conversations begin to push back against the term “social-emotional learning” in schools, Wesolowski said it’s dangerous to politicize SEL and mental health efforts in schools.
For instance, one Oklahoma lawmaker proposed legislation in January to remove SEL in the state’s schools, KFOR reported. And another parent group organized in September in Southlake, Texas, calling districts to “leave mental health and parenting to parents,” NBC News reported.
An Indiana group, known as the Purple for Parents Mission, explicitly states on its website that it’s advocating to stop “conditioning/grooming of vulnerable children” from programs like SEL.
“I think there is widespread agreement that our children’s mental health is suffering right now,” Wesolowski said. “We’re starting to see a tide shift, and I think state leaders are realizing that they have to do something. We’re all going to pay the price if we don’t address this children’s mental health epidemic.”
Wesolowski and Whitson both agree more supports and policies are still needed to meet students’ mental health needs. Also critical, they said, are efforts to make mental health days excused absences and provide more in-school professional support from counselors and social workers