Healthy high school classes in California will soon cover more than just nutrition and exercise. Thanks to the new law that went into effect on January 1, students will learn about depression, schizophrenia, mood disorders and other serious mental health conditions.
Senate Act 224 requires all school districts that offer health classes to include mental health as part of the curriculum. The California Department of Education has until January 1, 2023 to incorporate mental health into state standards, and counties have until January 1, 2024 to begin teaching the new subject.
“We hope this changes people’s lives,” said Senator Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, the bill’s sponsor. “This 9th grader inspired by a healthy class may go on to save the lives of his peers. Each of us touches so many people in our lives, and we see this as having exponential benefit.”
Health classes are not mandatory in California high schools, but about 60 percent of counties offer a health course that includes lessons on nutrition, exercise, drug use, sexual health, injury prevention, healthy relationships, and other health-related topics.
The standards also include mental health, but new legislation takes the topic a step further, to cover more serious conditions such as schizophrenia, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. The curriculum will explore the causes and symptoms of mental illness, as well as treatment and how to advocate for friends or family members who need help. Substance abuse and its relationship to mental health will also be part of the curriculum.
There is no additional funding available through the bill, but the financial impact is expected to be minimal. The California Department of Education will create the new curriculum, and schools that do not already offer health classes will not be required to add it.
Portantino, whose brother committed suicide a decade ago, has long advocated for mental health education. He said the new law would enable young people to talk about mental illness, recognize signs and provide help to those who need it.
“Teens are more likely to listen to someone at school than a lecture from mom or dad,” he said. “We hope this will encourage peer-to-peer advocacy and support, and will have far-reaching implications.”
Even before the pandemic, young people were facing myriad mental health challenges due to social media, school shootings, social injustice, racial inequality, and increasing uncertainty about the future. In 2019, a third of high school students reported continuing to feel sad or hopeless, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nearly two years after Covid, these feelings have intensified for many students, especially those who have felt isolated or struggle with distance learning and economic hardship.
A youth advocacy group in California called Generation Up has been a strong supporter of SB 224. Alvin Lee, the group’s executive director, said mental health is a priority for youth and education is a good way to help students deal with their children and friends. emotional struggles
“Mental health is one of the biggest conversations happening right now,” said Lee, a freshman at Claremont McKenna College. “The research is very clear. The earlier mental health education comes, the better the results later. … We hope to prepare this next generation of students to speak up and deal with mental health issues, their own as well as others’.”
Last month, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a stark warning about young people’s mental health, urging schools, health care companies and other institutions to do better to support young people’s emotional health and self-esteem.
Among the recommendations of the Surgeon General are access to high-quality counseling, instruction on stress management and emotional regulation, limitations on social media and video games, and access to physical health care. He said support for families battling poverty and inequality is also key.
“The mental health challenges of children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread,” Murthy said. “But most importantly, it is treatable, and often preventable….Our commitment to work is not only medical – it is ethical.”
The California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance has strongly supported the law, saying that although mental health is part of the current curriculum, it is not consistent across school districts and sometimes teachers are not adequately prepared to teach it.
We hope this bill will help fix that,” said William Potter, president of the group.
He said, “Many (many of our members) teach mental health topics in schools, and we know how important this education is to young people. It can literally save lives.” “However… not many school districts have qualified health educators who have been trained to teach this content and it would be great to see that change.”
Jessica Cruz, executive director of the California chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said SB 224 is a good start in reducing the stigma of mental illness and encouraging students, teachers and families to speak up on the issue.
“We’re glad that didn’t happen,” she said. “We wanted to make sure it was robust, rooted in the curriculum, and cumulative over time, so students really get a chance to understand and identify mental health disorders and learn how to access resources.”
Ideally, she said, it’s the start of more comprehensive and substantial mental health education in schools, starting in kindergarten.
“I hope this curriculum will eventually enter every school in California and in the nation,” she said. “It is not only for the benefit of the students, but also for the benefit of their families and teachers. It is for the benefit of the entire community.”