New Mental Health Program In Schools Aims To Destigmatize, Educate

Jul 23, 2019

The Florida Board of Education recently approved a new mandate requiring public schools to teach at least five hours of mental health instruction to students in sixth to 12th grade. 

The program requires students to take a course to help them identify signs and symptoms of depression and where to get help and resources. It aims to destigmatize mental health issues and and teach them how to help others who might be struggling.

State Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the new rule would be "a life-saver," and that "it is just the beginning." The rule was introduced in June by Gov. Ron DeSantis' wife Casey, who has made mental health one of her top priorities. The policy is scheduled to go into effect for the upcoming 2019-2020 school year and school districts have the ability to develop curriculum based on their needs. 

Ana Ceballos, reporter with the News Service of Florida, and Valerie Berrin, Operations Director of the non-profit organization Health Information Project (HIP), based in Miami-Dade County, joined Sundial. HIP provides student-to-student counseling services in public and private schools across Miami-Dade County. They train junior and seniors in high schools to discuss mental health issues with their 9th grade counterparts and refer those who need help to services. Ceballos and Berrin spoke with Sundial host Luis Hernandez about what the new program will entail and what resources and mental health counseling services HIP offers to  students.

WLRN: What was the impetus behind the creation of this new program?

CEBALLOS: We started seeing the rule development in late June. That was the first time that we saw the Department of Education show interest in requiring a minimum amount of time that students should be learning about mental health. It was during the State Board of Education meeting that we realized how much of a strong hand the First Lady (Casey DeSantis) had on this specific proposal. Richard Corcoran, who is the Education Commissioner, was pointing at her as ... basically the brainchild of this.

How much of a role did the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas play a part in this?

That was definitely mentioned. When the rule was being discussed they said that this would be a lifesaver for students who have been going through the emotional stress of tragedies like Parkland. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting is pretty tied to it.

Valerie, can you give me an example of how peer counselors approach the issue of mental health in the classroom?

BERRIN: I would say across the county, depression and stress are known big topics in mental health that need to be discussed. We train our peer health educators in everything from public speaking, classroom management, curriculum knowledge and how to have these conversations and then how to connect these students to resources. I'm proud to say that every ninth grader in the Miami-Dade County Public School system as well as independent private schools, 34,000 ninth graders, have received our program this year at 58 different high schools.

This program begins in sixth grade. Why is that the best time to start?

I think what we're seeing in middle school and high school age students is that there's a lot going on. With social media, with stress and with a variety of things including family issues, school issues and friend issues. It's just important to have these conversations at all of these ages and start it when you can.

There's a minimum of five hours of instruction. Is that enough?

You can't talk about nutrition without mental health. You can't talk about drugs without mental health. I feel like mental health is kind of the umbrella to a lot of things that are going on among kids, teenagers, adolescents. I would always say it's better to have more. It's better to have something than not have anything at all.

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