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Require Schools to Include Mental Health Education

Written by Bruce Cruser

Bruce Cruser has been Executive Director of Mental Health Virginia since 2016, bringing a background in social work and community corrections, and many years of leadership experience in local and state government.

January 31, 2023

By Chris Ames

SB 818  Lionell Spruill, Sr. | all patrons 

All Virginia’s school children deserve mental health education.

The original 2018 mental health education bill that became Virginia law §22.1-207 was introduced with the purpose of requiring health education in Virginia public schools to include mental health. This emphasis was meant to incorporate multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and better understanding of the relationship between physical and mental health. The intent by the bill’s sponsors was to further mental health understanding among Virginia’s school children.

High School students from Albemarle County initiated and advocated for the 2018 bill with help from their state senator (Deeds) and delegate (Bell) after the death by suicide of a classmate. The students received Mental Health America of Virginia’s annual Advocacy Champion Award for their work.

Since 2018, it has become apparent that school systems are not adequately following through to implement the law’s intent. The Department of Education created a work group and in late 2019 the Board of Education finally adopted revised Health Standards of Learning (SOLs) with grade level mental health concepts (The SOLs do not address grades 11 and 12 because health/physical education classes are not required beyond grade 10). However, informal surveys suggest public schools have failed to affirmatively include comprehensive mental health education in their curriculum and teach it.

Failure to implement has turned the 2018 mental health education law into a declaration of intent rather than a binding authority. Put another way: the bill essentially became just a piece of paper requiring schools to address mental health mostly as a “nice if you can fit it in somehow” addition.

Senate Bill 818 aims to directly address the ambiguities left over in the 2018 bill. In addition to the current requirement to include mental health in the SOLs, it requires school health instruction to include “at each grade level an additional age-appropriate program or course of instruction on mental health so as to enhance student understanding, awareness, attitudes, and behavior that promote mental health, well-being, and human dignity” (proposed new language in bold). The bill also specifies that instruction continue through grade 12.

This language transforms the 2018 bill from just a general addition of mental health references in the health standards of learning into a dedicated obligation to hold specific classes. Furthermore, SB 818 provides guidelines on topics to cover in these classes to further students’ mental health as they age. Most importantly, it requires local school boards to adopt and implement policies to require these classes. Finally, the bill requires the Board of Education to update the health Standards of Learning to comply with the provisions of the bill by the beginning of the 2024-2025 school year.

Mental Health America supports Senate Bill 818 as a tool to course-correct the original 2018 legislation. By creating an explicit obligation for schools to follow, more students will have greater access to mental health education, and understanding that mental health is an essential component of everyone’s overall health.

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