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Districts ready for new mental health curriculum

SPRINGVILLE—When students re-enter the classroom this year, they’ll undergo new curriculum requirements centered around mental health. A new state law will require districts in New York to add mental health lessons into the health curriculum.

The new law went into effect July 1, but doesn’t endorse a specific curriculum. Students in elementary, middle and high school will be taught mental health in addition to physical health.

“Over 90 percent of youth who die by suicide suffer from depression or another diagnosable and treatable mental illness at the time of death,” the law justification reads. “Over 50 percent of students with emotional or behavioral disorders drop out of high school.”

According to a study published in May in the journal Pediatrics, 0.66 percent of hospital visits across 31 children’s hospitals were related to suicide in 2008. That number rose to 1.82 percent in 2015.

“By ensuring that young people learn about mental health, we increase the likelihood that they will be able to more effectively recognize the signs in themselves and others … and get the right help,” the New York law reads. “Further, as we begin to teach the facts about mental health and openly discuss the issues from a health perspective, we will begin to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness.”

The law continues to outline the “mental health stigma” can lead to bullying, isolation and keeps students from getting the help they need.

While districts already taught health education, the new bill ensures mental health is one of the components taught to students. New York joins Virginia as the first states to require a mental health curriculum. Locally, both West Valley and Springville-Griffith Institute are welcoming the new mandates with open arms.

West Valley Central School

West Valley students in eighth and 10th grades already received mental health lessons, and the district is looking into how to expand the teachings throughout all grade levels in elementary, middle and high schools

Seven staff members attended a three-day training in Olean to learn about how students experiencing trauma can have an impact on their educational performance and experiences in the school.

“We need to have [mental health education] done at all grade levels throughout the year … students exposure to what mental health is, what are some of the early symptoms and signs,” Principal Dan Amodeo said. “We are definitely going to have that as part of our focus this year on how to address that. Our team came up with some really good ideas on how we maybe want to address that on a regular basis.”

The district plans to focus on empathy this year, both for students and adults. WVCS plans to use that focus to teach the importance of mental health to students while also giving staff the tools they need to help a student deal with issues.

“The first thing we are trying to do is really have an awareness and that is one of the focuses in our opening day with the faculty,” Superintendent Eric Lawton said. “What do we look for in our students, how do we try and make our students be more empathetic with each other and to look for how to deal with the trauma that is out there that some of our students or families might have experienced, how to look for that as a teacher and what the best reaction in the classroom is to deal with that on a regular basis.”

Springville-Griffith Institute

Principal James Bialasik said teachings at Springville High School were already reflecting what the state is now requiring, but the school did review the changes to ensure they were meeting the state mandate.

“We held the [state] recommendations up against our own curriculum, and we’re doing most of what is being tweaked,” Bialasik said.

Dr. James Velasquez, who teaches health and fitness at the high school, combed through the newly implemented regulations and found the school is already meeting most of them. Teaching everything from diseases to implementing project-based learning, mental health education is alive in the high school halls.

“Dr. Velasquez’s philosophy, and I agree, is that mental health is critical to overall health,” Bialasik said. “Certainly, with that’s happening in the state and around the nation, it underscores the need to have mental health talks.”

Outside the classrooms, the school fosters a culture that allows students to feel comfortable with staff and teachers, which Bialasik said helps when the students are looking for guidance.

“Students can come forward and ask for help if needed,” he said. “And there’s the Family Support Center … which gives that wrap around support to families.”

Colleen Mahoney contributed to this reporting.

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