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State: Students must get 5 hours of mental health lessons

Palm Beach Post - 8/22/2019

In between reading, writing and arithmetic -- and science and social studies -- Florida's public schools must now guarantee every child from grade six to 12 gets five hours a year of mental health education.

Districts must write up a plan by December outlining how they're going to deliver those lessons and prove they were given before the school year ends.

Only two weeks into that year, no one in Palm Beach County is certain what that's going to look like, but most educators and mental health experts agree it is both necessary and long overdue.

They also agree that this push, delivered by edict in mid-July from the state's Board of Education, is unfolding at a lightning pace increasingly common in all matters of school safety in the post-Parkland world.

Palm Beach County schools veteran-turned lobbyist Vernon Pickup Crawford recalls demands for mental health education in Tallahassee that date back to the 1999 Columbine shooting, and reared again after 26 were killed at Sandy Hook in 2012.

"We've been trying to do this for 20 years," Pickup Crawford said.

Little came of it in the Sunshine State or anywhere else until more recently.

With this move, Florida becomes the third state, behind Virginia and New York, to require students learn more about mental health.

<strong xmlns="http://www.infomaker.se/idf/1.0" id="strong-718660871bee28be586d34017425d812">Separate from Parkland reforms

The nation's health authorities define mental health as our emotional, psychological and social well-being -- something that can change over time. Mental health influences how we think, feel and act.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that someone can have bouts of "poor mental health" and not be diagnosed with a mental illness, and someone with a mental illness can enjoy periods of physical, mental and social well-being.

Many of the latest conversations about mental health in schools revolve around spotting children in crisis and connecting them with help, often with an eye to preventing the next school shooter.

The phrase "mental health" appears dozens of times in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act. The law, written in 2018 and revised this year, orders families to reveal any time a child was referred to mental health services if the referrals accompanied an expulsion, arrest or legal action.

The law directs schools to hire more mental health experts, provide services from mental health assessments to treatment, and train all staff in spotting potential mental health issues in students.

It is a push that has driven Palm Beach County schools to successfully partner with more than 30 agencies to provide counselors even before Parkland, an effort that has ramped up tremendously after.

But requiring schools to document five hours of mental health education for roughly 1.5 million students, is an entirely separate endeavour -- one that began with Florida's first lady Casey DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. The State Board of Education voted on their recommendation.

"This is just the beginning. It's no secret that mental illness robs students of the ability to reach their full potential, and we are joining forces to combat this disease and give our students the tools they need to thrive," Corcoran said July 16 in a press release.

"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."

<strong xmlns="http://www.infomaker.se/idf/1.0" id="strong-072a1d8be1cd7a197a62d3755761e341">A goal for 100 years

The prescribed five hours must hit on the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, such as depression or bipolar disorder, and how students can get help for themselves or others.

Students should also learn about resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and the new school security app, FortifyFL. The lessons also should cover what to do or say to peers struggling with mental health disorders.

In 1928, the National Education Association put mental hygiene at the top of its guidelines on what should be taught in health education. A century later, science and statistics punctuate the argument for educating youngsters.

The first signs or symptoms of mental health problems typically surface in a person's teens or early adulthood. The American Psychiatric Association reports about half of mental illness cases begin by age 14 and three quarters by age 24.

But, researchers report those signs are often dismissed, either because they aren't recognized for what they are or the associated stigma drives people to dismiss, ignore or rationalize what's going on.

Each year, about one in five students in the United States experiences a mental disorder. Only 20 percent of those diagnosed get mental health services, according to the National Association of Psychologists.

Seeking that help is vital and can reduce the severity of the illness. "It may even be possible to delay or prevent major mental illnesses altogether," the APA reports.

<strong xmlns="http://www.infomaker.se/idf/1.0" id="strong-17ac085ef85d22667dc759042afca9ba">Addressing issues is 'a good thing'

While Parkland is driving the push, the nation's health authorities are also aiming to curb the second leading cause of death among 12- to 17-year-olds: suicide.

Just days into the school year, already one teen has taken her life, authorities confirm.

Change can't come fast enough, said school board member Erica Whitfield, who once directed the district's wellness office.

"What you're going to see across the country is a shift in the understanding of mental health, a cultural shift," Whitfield said. "Right now there's a stigma. If you're chatting with somebody and they say they went to therapy, what we thought in the past may be, 'Oh my God, what's wrong with you?' But therapy is good. Addressing your issues early on is a good thing to do, not something you should be ostracized for."

In Palm Beach County, many of these lessons already make it to the classroom, said Diana Fedderan, assistant superintendent in the district's office of teaching and learning.

Years ago, elements of mental health education were baked into the state standards for classes from physical education to science and even English, particularly in middle school, Fedderman said.

What no one had done to date was add up how much time was invested in those elements. The math would be difficult, Fedderman said. One teacher might spend five minutes and another a half-hour on a lesson about substance abuse and its effects on mental health, for example.

While Fedderman doesn't know how the county's schools will meet the five-hour standard, she said what is already happening in those classes won't be taken out.

"Our teachers are not going to see anything different. We're not removing standards. This is going to be about providing an additional five hours of instruction," Fedderman said.

<strong xmlns="http://www.infomaker.se/idf/1.0" id="strong-f2457ade8c4bec26bb4c42adfa15ef1d">No opt out provision

The Department of Education says it will offer up classroom materials, but it will not dictate how the districts get to five hours. To tackle questions from districts, it issued a guide:

-- The five hours don't have to be continuous.

-- It is indeed five hours a year for each grade 6 through 12. So students in sixth grade now will have covered 35 hours total at graduation.

-- The hours can be delivered in certain courses or it can be integrated into events and presentations during the day.

-- So far, there is no way to opt out or for parents to have students excused from instruction.

-- The lessons can be done in a combination of online or face-to-face.

-- Dual enrolled students and full-time district virtual school students must meet this requirement.

-- Charter and private schools are exempt from it, though the state said participating is "strongly encouraged."

-- The district can choose its material.

-- There are no certification or credentials required to teach the material.

-- One approved way to deliver the material outside of a specific course: 30-minute lessons each month that occur simultaneously district-wide for students in grades six to 12.

"We are working out the details now," said Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald, who said he doesn't know what the district plans will look like, but doubts they will be large, assembly-style lessons. "These are important topics. I think smaller groups are better.

"We're glad about this, it's a good one. Kids go through a lot," Oswald said. "Back when I was in high school, when health class was required, we got some of this -- back in the stone ages. With social media now the urgency is even stronger."

sisger@pbpost.com

@sonjaisger

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(c)2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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