Men­tal health lessons to be­gin soon in schools

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Les­lie Postal

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

dis­trict.

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.

SARAH ESPEDIDO/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Florida first lady Casey DeSan­tis an­nounces a new ini­tia­tive, “The Facts. Your Fu­ture,” on Dec. 4.

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