Virginia Among First to Require Mental Health Education in Schools

by | Jul 26, 2018 | COMMUNITY

In the wake of heightened suicide rates, school shootings and rising teen depression, Virginia, along with New York, has taken a huge step in becoming the first to require mental health education in schools.

SB 953 mandates mental health education be incorporated into ninth and 10th-grade classes to “recognize the multiple dimensions of mental health.”

The current Health Standards of Learning include mental health in grades seven through 10. However, the learning standards for ninth and 10th grade simply require the identification of mental health resources, both within the school and within the community. Now, classrooms will incorporate mental health awareness, training and more multifaceted education of mental health into health curriculum.

“It’s important that young people know some fundamentals about mental health,” said Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds, who proposed the bill. “It’s important to let mental health issues be given the same dignity as physical health issues.”

Deeds proposed the bill after a group of high school students from Albemarle County brought the legislation to him. Alexander Moreno, Lucas Johnson, and Choetsow Tenzin sought to break the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“[Moreno, Johnson, and Tenzin] are very young people who have seen some of their classmates struggle,” Deeds said. “They know the pressure that young people are under. They’ve seen bullying, they’ve seen depression…They’ve even known friends who’ve died by suicide.”

But Deeds has his connection to the legislation in more ways than one. His son, Austin “Gus” Deeds, was taken to a hospital in 2013 for a mental health evaluation, after stabbing his father, but had to be released because no psychiatric beds were available in the western part of Virginia. Gus took his life the next day. Deeds later said Virginia’s system failed his son.

“My son was a beautiful kid,” Deeds said. “He was one of the brightest, most capable people I’ve ever known, and I miss him like you wouldn’t believe. But that’s why I have to continue to work to ensure people have quality l{of} ife and ensure people get the help they need in every part of Virginia.”

Deeds’ bill plans to create a space to allow students to have open discussions about the fundamentals of mental health issues that may arise for ninth and 10th graders. The legislation will require the Virginia Board of Education to create a new curriculum including thorough, expansive mental health material.

Statistically, half of all chronic mental illnesses start by the time a person turns 14 and 75 percent of them have occurred by the time a person turns 24. Of the children between the ages of eight and 15 who suffer from a mental illness, only half received care in the last year. Mental health conditions affect a significant number of adults in the U.S., as well. Nearly 20 percent, or one in every five people, experience mental illness each year.

“This is a great opportunity to talk about human development and brain development, particularly in teenagers because they’re experiencing it,” said Bela Sood, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at VCU. “The curriculum needs to emphasize the notion of how emotions are governed by biology. We all have mental health, and when we talk about wellness it isn’t just physical.”

Sood said awareness and intervention are necessary for starting conversations about mental health.

“Mental health issues have a impact on physical health issues and vice versa,” Sood said. “The curriculum will need to put the two together in a way that gets that idea across.”

Legislation to better incorporate education, awareness, and resources on mental health into high school classrooms could not come at a better time, as the nation has seen spikes in mass shootings, suicide rates, and depression.

Currently, suicide sits as the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and for people between the ages of 15 and 24, it is the second leading cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide rates have increased more than 30 percent in the last two decades, as the U.S. lost nearly 45,000 lives to suicide in 2016.

Cindy Anderson, Richmond resident, and mother of two said the legislation is a major step in the right direction, but not the entire solution. From what she’s seen at her children’s schools, she thinks bullying is the root of several problems, especially the heightened school shootings, and needs to be addressed through the new curriculum.

“Kids are at their most vulnerable age in middle school and high school,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if the schools handle it correctly…I’m not sure.”

Anderson said she recently saw a bullying incident dealt with at one of Richmond’s schools. The two children were brought into the office, one crying with scratches on his face and his glasses broken. She noticed administrators were paying more attention to the bully rather than the child who was bullied.

“They need to have some sort of setup or intervention to take care of what happened to the kid that’s bullied,” Anderson said. “Rather than just suspending or sending home the person that is the bully. I’ve seen [bullying] at my son’s school and it takes a toll on some kids.”

As of May 2018, there have been 23 school shootings where someone was either injured or killed. Anderson said for her, it isn’t just a gun control issue–it has to do with mental health and bullying. She advocates for more preventive measures.

“As long as [schools] teach kids to be inclusive, it can help avoid kids from getting to a point where they’re already depressed,” Anderson said. “Little kids are afraid. There’s so much pressure on them.”

The Virginia law mandates the Board of Education to update the current Health Standards of Learning to create a more comprehensive curriculum. Deeds said he hopes to see something in place by the start of this coming school year.

“I want the stigma surrounding mental health to dissolve. I hope this will encourage people who need help to seek help,” Deeds said. “There is no health without mental health.”


Saffeya Ahmed

Saffeya Ahmed

Saffeya Ahmed is a senior at VCU studying journalism and political science. Enjoys painting, writing poems, and watching Friends.

more in community

RVAMAG Favorite Things Reader’s Poll 2023

Welcome to our Favorite Things Reader's Poll 2023! Because, you know, we're dying to find out what really keeps you, our esteemed readers, up at night in our charming city. Where do we hang out? What on earth are we doing with our lives? And let's not forget the...

The 2023 Richmond ‘Drinksgiving’ Dive Bars List is Here!

Once more, the city gears up for its most cherished pre-Thanksgiving tradition: Drinksgiving. As the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving rolls in, locals gather to sip and speculate over life's puzzles, arming themselves with witty retorts for the family festivities...

#DOWNTOWNRVA: Meet John, Traveler from South Carolina

We dispatched our hometown photographer, CJ Payne, to the heart of the city to capture a snapshot and engage in some casual conversation. Consider it our local twist on the acclaimed Humans of New York series that we hold in high regard. Our aim is to foster a sense...

Beth Macy, Author of Dopesick, Discusses her Newest Book

Virginia based writer and journalist Beth Macy, author of the book Dopesick, will appear at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture to discuss her newest work, Raising Lazarus on Tuesday November 13th at 6:00 pm. You can get tickets to that event here, and read...

The Wes Freed Memorial Fund Needs Your Help

On September 4th, 2022, beloved artist and Richmond local Wes Freed passed away from colorectal cancer. In honor of his memory, members of the community who knew and loved him are trying to establish a memorial fund in his name with the goal of giving scholarships to...

#DOWNTOWNRVA: Meet Bobby, Owner of the Record Store Vinyl Conflict

We dispatched our hometown photographer, CJ Payne, to the heart of the city to capture a snapshot and engage in some casual conversation. Consider it our local twist on the acclaimed Humans of New York series that we hold in high regard. Our aim is to foster...

Mikemetic puts Graffiti in the Spotlight with Vapors Magazine

This story was originally published in RVA 41 which can be in various locations around town, or you can read it right here. This is a slightly modified version formatted for digital distribution. CHRISTIAN DETRES: Alright, I'm recording. Okaaaay… here with Mikemetic....

Pin It on Pinterest