On Sunday, New York and Virginia became the first two states to enact laws requiring mental health education in schools.
New York’s law updates the health curriculum in elementary, middle and high schools to include material on mental health. Virginia’s law mandates that mental health education be incorporated into physical education and health curricula for ninth- and 10th-graders.
The New York law says that mental health “is an integral part of our overall health and should be an integral part of health education in New York schools.”
Both laws come into effect amid an increased focus on mental health and suicide. In June, two prominent figures — Kate Spade, a fashion designer, and Anthony Bourdain, a chef and CNN host — died by suicide within the same week.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 and the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The suicide rate in the country has also dramatically increased in recent years, up 30% since 1999, according to the CDC.
According to the New York law, which was written in 2015, “90 percent of youth who die by suicide suffer from depression or another diagnosable and treatable mental illness at the time of their death.”
Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds sponsored his state’s mental health bill after he listened to a presentation from high schoolers in Albemarle County in 2017. The students had proposals for addressing mental health issues in schools, including increased counseling staff. They worked with Deeds to create the legislation, passed in April.
“I was impressed by their thoughtfulness, because a lot of these young people had seen bullying. They had seen depression. They had seen classmates that had died by suicide,” Deeds said. “It’s part of tearing down the stigma and providing some equality with those that struggle with mental health.”
He also has a personal connection to the issue: His son, Gus Deeds, died by suicide in 2013 at age 24. Gus was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, but released because there were no open psychiatric beds across the western part of the state. The next day, Gus stabbed Deeds and then turned a gun on himself. Deeds later said that the Virginia system failed his son.
Since his son’s death, Deeds has advocated for mental health reforms in many aspects of state laws.
The Virginia law mandates the state’s Board of Education update the health Standards of Learning with mental health material for ninth and 10th grades.
The New York law does not mandate a specific curriculum; it instead updates the health curriculum to include mental health in its definition and purview.
Under the new law, health education in the state “must recognize the multiple dimensions of health and include the relationship of physical and mental health,” according to the New York State Department of Education.