In a bold new move, New York has become the first U.S. state to make mental health classes mandatory for all grades — starting with kids as young as 3 years old. The change comes thanks to a new law, passed on July 1 of this year, which requires mental health education be part of the standard health curriculum for all students.
According to the New York State Mental Health Advisory Council, the curriculum will begin to be taught this fall in health and physical education classes, starting in preschool, all the way up through high school. Nine key points will be incorporated into the curriculum — including how to identify the signs of mental illnesses and how to find appropriate resources for getting help — though how exactly each school accomplishes this will be up to administrators.
Honestly, I can’t applaud this enough. Not just because it exposes children to important mental health topics early, but also because it means kids who might be suffering from undiagnosed mental health conditions will now have the tools and resources they need to recognize it, right at school. Kids who need help won’t have to search so hard for it — they’ll learn how to find help while still in the classroom, and feel empowered to reach out to school psychologists or their teacher.
But another crucial component to the new education plan is that it helps destigmatize mental health disorders in general; and considering 1 in 5 children suffer from a mental health or learning disorder, this could have huge impacts.
In fact, research shoes that 17.1 million kids will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder by the age of 18. Which means the sooner kids can gain an understanding of their own mental health issues, the more power they’ll have to reach out for help, and live healthy, productive lives.
Personally, I wish a program like this had been around when I was a child. Having spent years missing the warning signs of anxiety, I didn’t gain a real understanding of my own mental health until I was well into adulthood. I wonder just how differently my younger years would have been, had I only had the tools to recognize what I was experiencing. It wasn’t just a personality quirk, and I wasn’t wrong or bad because of it.
That kind of knowledge would have made all the difference.
While New York is the first state to make mental health education mandatory in every grade, Virginia actually passed a similar law earlier this year, though it only pertains to 9th- and 10th-graders. Make no mistake, though — since mental health issues typically begin presenting themselves around age 14, those are pretty pivotal grades to introduce the curriculum.
Still, the hope is that more states will follow New York’s lead, and require mental health classes for all grades. Because the sooner we can give our kids the proper support they need, and the courage or recognize signs and help someone else, the better. Ultimately, a program like this doesn’t just have the potential to change kids’ lives — it has the power to save them.