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EDITORIAL: Adding mental health to the curriculum

Free Lance-Star - 7/17/2018

July 17--ON VALENTINE'S Day, the day a troubled 19-year-old former student walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. and shot 17 students and staff members to death, Senate Bill 953 was already making its way through the Virginia Senate. House Bill 1604 wasn't far behind in the House of Delegates.

The identical companion bills called for Virginia public schools to integrate mental health education into the health class curricula taken by ninth- and 10th-graders across the state.

The bills didn't get a whole lot of attention as they sailed through both chambers, advancing with unanimous or near-unanimous votes. Maybe it helped that no new appropriation of funds was necessary.

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Signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, the legislation calls for the state Board of Education to develop a mental health education segment for the health classes and to update Standards of Learning provisions to include mental health education.

The legislation directs the board to consult with experts from the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, NAMI Virginia, Mental Health America of Virginia, the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards and VOCAL, Inc. as it designs the curriculum.

The motivation behind the legislation was not the epidemic of school shootings across the country, though the timing of the bills' introduction was provident given the Florida tragedy. There, the shooter's mental health issues, which were evident prior to the attack but largely ignored, became a main topic of hindsight discussion immediately afterwards.

The Virginia legislation relates to a separate tragic incident closer to home. It was introduced initially by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Bath County Democrat whose 24-year-old son, Gus, committed suicide in 2013 shortly after attacking and wounding his father with a knife. Prior to the incident, a judge had approved an involuntary mental health treatment commitment order for Gus, but no hospital bed was found for him despite an intensive search. So he was sent home.

The legislation is the latest example of Deeds' continuing effort to address the way the law--and society--deals with mental health issues. His efforts have led to changes in hospital admission practices for patients needing emergency psychiatric evaluation.

Deeds has said in interviews that this year's legislation was spurred by candid discussions with high school students who pointed to the emotional impact of bullying. They knew of troubled classmates who shunned mental health counseling or therapy because of the stigma associated with it. And they knew other students who had either committed suicide or tried to.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24. The journal Pediatrics reported that the number of adolescent Americans contemplating or attempting suicide nearly tripled between 2008 and 2015. Research also indicates that 90 percent of young people who die by suicide had suffered from depression or another treatable mental illness.

The consensus, so oft-repeated that it borders on cliché, is that someone needs to do something. The least we can do to understand mental health or illness is to talk about it.

This legislation is a start at doing something. It will put the warning signs of mental health issues front and center for 15- and 16-year-olds, the age when kids are discovering their own identities and experiencing rapid changes to their minds and bodies. They need to learn what these warning signs are and know they are welcome to discuss them with their teachers, counselors or parents, whether their concerns apply to themselves or others.

Certainly all educators who counsel students or lead discussions on mental illness should receive specialized training on the subject matter.

On July 1, Virginia and New York became the first two states to implement programs like this, and other states should follow their lead. Virginia accomplished it in part by garnering bipartisan support for the legislation in both chambers; the House bill was sponsored by Del. Bob Bell, a Charlottesville-area Republican.

Will mental health issues be solved by one segment of one health class in a high school curriculum? Of course not. But the idea here is simply to put the topic on the table for these students, to present factual information and invite discussion in a classroom setting.

Young people today are proving themselves willing and able to generate an urgency and demand solutions that have eluded the generation that came before them. In Virginia they are now, officially, part of the discussion.

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(c)2018 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

Visit The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.) at www.fredericksburg.com/flshome

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