State Mandate Calls for Mental Health Education in Florida Schools
by MARY TOOTHMAN
The State Board of Education has voted to approve a new mandate that calls for specific mental health lessons to be given to students in grades six through 12.
The focus will be on awareness, prevention, and reducing stigma. At least five hours of education per year will be required, and lesson plans must be submitted by December 1 each year. By July 1, documentation will need to be provided that verifies the plan has been implemented and completed.
Quality mental and emotional health education in Florida has been identified as a high priority by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, First Lady Casey DeSantis, and the Legislature.
Officials indicate that time is a critical factor. Studies show that one in five youth in Florida — and worldwide — are impacted by mental health disorders before they turn 25.
Statistics are alarming:
Florida Youth Risk Behavior Survey data documents that in 2017:
- 28 percent of Florida high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row.
- 14 percent reported purposely hurting themselves without wanting to die.
- 14 percent reported having seriously considered attempting suicide.
- 11 percent reported having made a plan to commit suicide.
- 8 percent reported a suicide attempt.
Polk County School Board Member Billy Townsend says he hopes the mandate will bring about results. It’s clear help is needed, he said.
“More than 2,000 high school age kids will kill themselves this year,” Townsend explains. “More than 2,500 school-age children. That is far more than have died in all mass school shootings, ever, combined.
“I welcome the state’s attention to this killer. But the state of Florida also has a history of very poor implementation and unfunded local mandates in public education,” he says. “We all, local districts and state government, need to commit to meaningful careful collaboration to implement this plan if it’s going to succeed as more than just a PR campaign. I certainly hope it does.”
According to the state’s ruling, mental health literacy components that are key to well-being include understanding how to optimize and maintain good mental health, decreasing stigmas related to mental health, enhancing help-seeking ability, and understanding mental disorders and treatments.
Mental and emotional health education can positively impact such vital areas as teen suicide, bullying and cyberbullying, and opioid and alcohol addictions.
Specifically, the mandate says that:
- School districts must annually provide a minimum of five hours of instruction to students in grades sax through 12, related to youth mental health awareness and assistance — including suicide prevention and the impacts of substance abuse.
- The instruction for youth mental and emotional health is to advance each year through developmentally appropriate instruction and skill-building, and must address the following topics:
(a) Recognition of signs and symptoms of mental health disorders
(b) Prevention of mental health disorders;
(c) Mental health awareness and assistance;
(d) How to reduce the stigma around mental health disorders;
(e) Awareness of resources, including local school and community resources;
(f) The process for accessing treatment;
(g) Strategies to develop healthy coping techniques;
(h) Strategies to support a peer, friend, or family member with a mental health disorder;
(i) Prevention of suicide;
(j) Prevention of the abuse of and addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and drugs.
- By Dec. 1 of each year, each school district must submit an implementation plan to the commissioner, and post the plan on the school district website. The implementation plan must include:
(a) The specific courses in which instruction will be delivered for each grade level;
(b) The professional qualifications of the person delivering instruction; and
(c) A description of the materials and resources utilized to deliver instruction.
Polk schools have existing programs designed to address the psychological needs of students; the new mandate would be blended with existing assistance programs.
The school system’s website says the Polk system “is committed to cultural diversity. We believe we benefit from our varied backgrounds and beliefs. School psychologists support children and families from all backgrounds regardless of race, color, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation, transgender status or gender identity), disability (including HIV, AIDS, or Sickle cell trait), pregnancy, marital status, age (except as authorized by law), religion, military status, language spoken, homelessness, ancestry, or genetic information, which are classes protected by state and/or federal law.”
Most school psychologists are typically assigned on a regular basis to three or four schools, the site says. “Polk County Public Schools takes a whole-child approach in all it does, supporting the development of students not only academically, but also physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. School psychologists are integral to meeting our students’ mental and emotional needs.”
There is also a plan underway to increase mental health services for Polk County’s public school students. A proposal being considered would distribute some $2.4 million in the upcoming school year to increase assessments, diagnoses, interventions, and treatments for students determined to need support.