Mental Health Education in Our Schools

Early intervention is a key factor to helping young people suffering from mental illness. Here’s how we’re handling it in the Hudson Valley.


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Illustration by Lynn Scurfield

Lonely, confused, and frightened — those are a few of the feelings teens and their family members confront when coping with mental illness. It happens earlier in life and more commonly than many suspect.

As many as one in five teens, aged 13 to 18, experiences a mental disorder and yet, despite available treatments, only half of those affected ever seek help. An average of 10 years may pass between the time symptoms first appear and help is found. It’s a decade during which mental illness can negatively affect a teen’s home life, school career, and social life.

“The fact that half of all mental illness surfaces by the age of 14, and three-quarters has surfaced by age 24, just screams ‘early intervention,’” says Tina Yun Lee, executive director for the Mid-Hudson chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “It’s much easier to get help for a child than it is to fix a broken adult.”

While steps were recently taken on the state level — a law mandating more mental health education in New York State schools was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016, which goes into effect in July 2018 — Hudson Valley schools have already been addressing the need.

 “It has really been an important issue for years and years,” said Dr. Steven Rappleyea, executive director of family and student support services in the Poughkeepsie City Schools. “Many school districts have supported social, emotional, and mental health for decades.” 

 

Educating the Students — and Teachers

According to Rappleyea, teachers in Poughkeepsie schools receive training to recognize the signs of mental illness and deal with a crisis. 

“On the student side, we partner with the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral & Community Health to provide a social and emotional health curriculum for all students, pre-K and up,” Rappleyea says. “We have a unique opportunity. When you think about it, schools are one of the only social structures available that touches everybody in the community.” 

The basics of mental health are covered in Cathy Bowman’s health class in the Highland Central School District. After the instructional part of her three-part lesson plan, Bowman asks students to make presentations and discuss what they’ve learned.

“During Part II students create a presentation on a mental illness and present the mental illness to the class,” said Bowman. “Part III we discuss emotions and complete an assignment on how bullying can affect our emotions. We then talk about the impact of stress on our lives.”

Bowman hopes such discussions reduce the stigma of mental illness.

“Having a mental illness does not make us a weak person,” said Bowman. “In fact, it is just like having any [other] illness.” 

 

Adding Support Staff

Schools throughout the Hudson Valley have also added mental health professionals to the staff. 

Donna Geidel, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Pine Bush Central School District, says that her school hired a mental health clinician a year ago. Students can meet with the clinician to discuss issues that happen outside of school, as well as school-related ones.

“We’ve been working with the Orange County Department of Mental Health, as have schools in Newburgh and Port Jervis,” said Geidel.

Having a social worker on staff and hiring behavioral health counselors to address specific subjects are just one way that the Dover Union Free School District promotes mental health awareness. Guidance counselors also visit classes and reach out to students in small group sessions.

“We try and touch base with every student,” said Emily Krieger, Dover Middle and High School’s health teacher. “We discuss different types of mental health issues, even stress, which can lead to or compound mental illness.”

 

Ending the Silence

Krieger also invited NAMI’s Ending The Silence (ETS) program to give a presentation. The program’s speakers are either a young adult with a mental illness or a family member of a student diagnosed while in school. Making it personal can be effective, says Krieger: “I definitely see students becoming more aware of the different types of mental illness and more inclined to reach out to support someone showing red flag warning signs.” 

Jennifer Rothman, national manager of the ETS program, agrees. “Early intervention is key,” she says. “If we give these students an outlet where they can safely share their concerns and issues, we have a better chance of getting them the help that they need versus their condition worsening to the point of crisis.”

Sandi Hecht-Garcia, the prevention services provider at Wallkill Central School District, was hired before the mental health bill was signed and since then has offered several programs for students, parents and teachers. She welcomed the ETS program, offered workshops for parents, and invited NAMI to instruct teachers about mental illness. Hecht-Garcia sees mental health as an essential component of living a healthy life.

“If you don’t feel safe, or [you] feel depressed, it’s hard for you to go to higher levels of attaining your goals,” said Hecht-Garcia. “It gets in the way of learning. If you have anxiety or depression or experienced trauma, it’s can be more challenging to focus on your studies. Support and treatment can be very helpful.”

Lee, NAMI’s Mid-Hudson executive director, agrees. “If students are not feeling well, they’re not doing well and consequently they are dropping out of school, which leads to limited job opportunities and sometimes jail, and of course the fatal consequence of suicide,” said Lee. 

Suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people ages 10 to 24. Some students attend ETS after losing a friend to suicide. 

“Kids who have a friend who committed suicide often have a lot of guilt, thinking they could have prevented it,” said Lee. “Not all suicide is preventable. Talking about it can give students some clarity and help them not feel guilty. It’s not something we are raised to discuss. We have to learn how to do that.”

Lee became involved with ETS because of her daughter’s mental illness.  

“NAMI saved my daughter’s life and gave me back mine,” said Lee. “It taught me how to advocate better, talk about my daughter’s illness, and communicate with professionals. Mental illness affects your entire family emotionally, physically, and financially.”

Lee knows that mental health education works, “because my daughter is still here.” 


If you or someone you care about is suffering from a mental illness, call or text the NAMI Mid-Hudson helplines: Dutchess County at 845.485.9700, or Ulster at 845.679.2485. If it is an emergency, call 911.

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