Mental health lessons to begin soon in schools
Florida’s middle and high schools must provide students new mental health lessons on topics such as coping with stress and suicide prevention, and most local schools plan to start the state-mandated lessons in January or February.
Each student in grades 6 to 12 must get five hours of instruction, with some schools offering it in a single all-day program and others breaking the lessons into smaller chunks delivered over several weeks.
In the Orange County school district, the region’s largest, students will get five, hour-long lessons starting Feb. 4, with the program to be wrapped up by the end of that month.
The information aims to help students understand and recognize mental health disorders, to lessen their stigma and to provide resources students can use for themselves, their friends and their families.
“It’s not corny. It’s good information, and it’s pretty engaging,” said Ashley Sanders, the mental health program specialist for the Seminole County school
Most importantly, Sanders said, the information is not sensationalized or romanticized. “Not ’13 Reasons Why,’” she said, referring to the widely criticized Netflix show about teen suicide.
The new requirement was passed by the State Board of Education in midJuly.
“This is just the beginning,” said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in a statement after the state board mandated the new lessons. “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.”
The lessons are to focus on substance abuse, suicide prevention and a range of topics related to mental and emotional health.
They come after the mass shooting at a Parkland high school in early 2018, which prompted state leaders to take a new look at student mental health. But in pushing the new lessons, they cited worrisome statistics from before the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
In 2017, for example, more than a quarter of Florida’s high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row, according to the Florida Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Fourteen percent reported contemplating suicide, 20 percent reported drinking and 17 percent reported vaping nicotine while 12 percent reported vaping marijuana.
“There’s a huge need,” Sanders said.
Because Florida school districts had to submit their plans for the new lessons to the Florida Department of Education by Dec. 1, and must deliver them before the school year ends, most local districts adopted curricula from outside sources rather than develop their own.
Many will use videos and computer-based instruction to deliver the lessons, though classroom discussions will be worked in as well. Classroom teachers will be trained on delivering the lessons, but mental health counselors will be on hand, too, district officials said.
Both the Lake and the Seminole school districts alerted parents earlier this month, via email and phone messages, about the upcoming lessons that will start after the winter holiday break. Sanders said she has fielded phone calls from a few parents who wanted more information about what would be covered.
Lake’s plan says after each lesson students will complete an “exit ticket” in
which they can “request to speak with a mental health professional if they wish.”
First Lady Casey DeSantis launched a “Hope for Healing Florida” mental health campaign after her husband took office in January. In a statement after the State Board’s July vote, she said half of all mental illness cases begin by age 14, so the state is “being proactive” by offering the mental health lessons starting in middle school.
“Providing mental health instruction is another important step forward in support our families,” she said.
Florida first lady Casey DeSantis announces a new initiative, “The Facts. Your Future,” on Dec. 4.