News Article Details

Carrie Seidman: One small step for mental health

The Herald-Tribune - 7/21/2019

Jul. 21--That the state Board of Education last week voted to require public schools to teach students at least five hours of mental health instruction annually, beginning in sixth grade, was welcome news.

Since the school shootings in Parkland last year, Florida, which remains near the bottom of state rankings in terms of mental health funding, has responded mostly with increased money for security, including physical "hardening" of campuses and, in Sarasota County school district, an internal police force. It's good to see recognition that proactive mental health measures are at least as important -- I'd argue more -- as reactive anti-violence measures.

The new requirement was instigated by Casey DeSantis, wife of Governor Ron DeSantis, who has made mental health one of her priorities. And in the spirit of "anything is better than nothing," she should be applauded for pushing through anything that may improve our state's dismal mental health record.

But as someone in the trenches on this issue for more than a decade, I'm hesitant to herald this small step forward as the game-changer it was proclaimed by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran after the board's unanimous vote.

"We are going to reinvent school-based mental health awareness in Florida and we will be the number one state in the nation in terms of mental health outreach and school safety, all because of the governor's and First Lady's remarkable vision," effused Corcoran in a prepared statement. "It is going to be a lifesaver and it will reduce the stigma."

Those are pretty grandiose claims for a course that has yet to be defined or even scheduled for implementation. The new mandate requires students in grades six through 12 to receive instruction that will help them recognize signs of mental distress, know where to seek help and be able to react supportively with peers; it may also cover cyberbullying, suicide prevention and the impact of substance abuse.

According to Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters, individual school districts will be able to choose how this information will be delivered and how they will tailor the content. They'll also determine how teachers fit the five-hour requirement into schedules already squeezed for time.

As always, the devil will be in those as-yet nebulous details. My fear is that this well-intended addition may end up becoming just another box on the check list for teachers and another "subject" for students to impatiently endure rather than organically absorb. How many kids were deterred from trying drugs by the "Just Say No" campaign, or from engaging in premarital sex by cursory education advocating abstinence? And since, according to a 2018 study by The Journal of Pediatrics, behavior problems are most common among children aged 6 to 11, could this be an effort to lock the barn after the horses have already fled?

What really might put Florida at the forefront would be to implement practices already in place across the nation and around the world, where mental health is integrated into every possible facet of a school's ecology, from the first time a child enters kindergarten. These simple but consistently reinforced strategies can have an outsize impact, not only in recognizing or alleviating a student's struggle at the onset, but in bringing out of the shadows the whole mental health conversation.

For example, at a Washington middle school, every student gets a personal "H or H" (handshake or hug, their choice) from a staff member upon entering school each morning, helping students feel appreciated and cared for, while providing staff with a instant visual check-in to spot anyone who might be struggling.

A teacher in San Francisco uses "bee breath" -- a mindfulness and breathing exercise incorporating a hum on the exhale -- to calm and refocus her special education students whenever stress levels rise throughout the school day.

And in a California high school, students grab a post-it, write their name on the back (for privacy) and place it on a "mental health check in chart" next to a statement that best matches their feelings of the day: "I'm great," "I'm meh," "I'm struggling," or "I'm in a really dark place." (The last two catalyze a conversation with a school social worker or psychologist.)

In making the announcement about the new state requirement, Corcoran said it was "just the beginning" of more changes to come regarding mental health in Florida's education system.

Let's hope those changes include more school psychologists -- right now there is just one for every 1,400 students in our district, less than half the national per-student recommendation -- as well as making mental health awareness top of mind every day, not just five hours a year.

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at carrie.seidman@heraldtribune.com or 941-361-4834. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.

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