New law mandates mental health education in Virginia schools

Published: Sep. 27, 2018 at 6:13 AM EDT
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For many students, starting high school can be a challenging time.

"They're going to come into the building and they're going to try to figure out who they are and who they're going to follow," said Bette Jean Santos, a health and physical education teacher at Murray High School.

Statistics show this challenging time can have an effect on students' mental health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of adolescents who are diagnosed with a mental health disorder, like anxiety or depression, increases with age.

Suicide is also a leading cause of death in adolescents, according to the CDC.

When a group of Albemarle County students saw mental health affecting their peers, they began pushing to increase the education of the issue in schools.

Their efforts caught the attention of Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds, who advocates for mental health reform.

"These young people were so persistent and forthright in their views and I thought it was so important that I didn't want to do anything to discourage them," Deeds said.

He sponsored a bill in the Virginia Senate mandating mental health education and Delegate Robert Bell brought it forward in the Virginia House of Delegates.

It passed in the 2018 legislative session and went into effect on July 1.

"I think it passed because it makes perfect sense," Deeds said.

The bill said the Virginia Department of Education must work with experts to review and update the Standards of Learning for ninth and 10th grades to include mental health.

"As I see it, this is preventative medicine," said Deeds. "More important than anything else is that people start talking about mental health and they start talking about suicide prevention."

In Albemarle County, where the idea for the bill all began, students are starting to get that mental health education.

"Albemarle County really embraced it and hired mental health counselors for our buildings, as well as embraced the freshman seminar that gives so much support to mental health issues," Santos said.

But understanding mental health goes beyond the classroom at Murray High School, where Santos teaches.

'"If they know how their brain works and they're feeling stressed, they can come into the gym and get onto the elliptical and build up the endorphins and build up the serotonin, which are all feel-good neurotransmitters," said Santos.

She said ninth and 10th grades are the perfect time to expose students to mental health education and start healthy habits.

"These brains are like sponges growing. They're primed for learning. They're going to learn and they're going to hard-wire what they're doing," said Santos.

Deeds is hopeful that the education can help students and save lives going forward.

"You want young people to not only know the basics about mental health and what to look for in their friends, but also what to look for in themselves," Deeds said.

The Virginia Department of Education said it is in the process of revising the Standards of Learning to include mental health.