New law requires updates to mental health education in Virginia high schools

On July 1, Virginia became one of the first states to pass legislation requiring mental health education be included in the ninth- and 10th-grade health curriculum.

State Sen. Creigh Deeds has pushed for more mental health awareness for years. In 2013, Deeds’ son, Austin “Gus” Deeds, was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. He was turned away because there were no psychiatric beds available in the hospital or in the surrounding area. The following day, Gus Deeds attacked and stabbed his father and then killed himself. Deeds created this bill after seeing a presentation by a group of Albemarle County high school students after two friends died of suicide.

“There is such a stigma around mental illness and we want people to know it’s okay to talk about these things,” Deeds said. “The brain is part of the body. Mental health issues are no more or no less important than physical health.”

New York’s legislation updates mental health education taught in grades K-12.

Virginia legislation requires that the health curriculum for all public high schools include standards recognizing "the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and the relationship of physical and mental health so as to enhance student understanding, attitudes, and behavior that promote health, well-being and human dignity."

Mental health is already in the health curriculum for grades seven through 10, however, the law “directs the state Board of Education to review and update the standards in consultation with mental health experts,” specifically for grades nine and 10, according to Charles Pyle, communications director for the Virginia Department.

The DOE will consult with numerous agencies including the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Virginia and Mental Health America of Virginia.
Pyle said there is not timeline, but staff has started working on recommendations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have risen about 30 percent in the United States since 1999. About one in five children ages 13 to 18 experiences a severe mental disorder at some point in their life, according to NAMI. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among children 10 to 14 and the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, according to NAMI.

Other mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, mood disorders, and early onset schizophrenia begin to manifest during the early teen years as well.

“Nine through 10th grade makes sense because it is earlier and I think we underestimate young kids’ ” ability to talk about the subject, said Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia in Richmond. “The sooner they will be able to recognize signs and symptoms the better.”

Deeds said the purpose of the legislation is “to make sure awareness is built and people have a basis for what to look for.”

Lucas Poe, 17, struggles with anxiety and depression stemming from gender dysphoria, an internal conflict he has because he is uncomfortable with the gender he was born with. The Princess Anne High School senior is transitioning from female to male.

He supports the legislation and feels it will help bullies understand why some people think and act differently. He hopes the classes will cover depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders and lesser-known conditions.

“The better we understand each other,” he said, “the more likely we are to get along.”

Todd McGovern is a middle school teacher in Virginia Beach as well as a father to a of a high school student.

McGovern hopes that this legislation will “destigmatize mental illness” and “teach how treatment actually happens.”

“We teach young people how to self-diagnose cancer when that is a problem that probably won’t happen for years,” he said. “We should teach them to self-diagnose mental health issues when it is something that could happen so much earlier.”