By Samira Schreiber and Jessica Cruz
In 2019, more than 45% of young people between the ages of 12-17 in California experienced “moderate to severe” psychological distress, which has proven to interfere with academic and social functioning. In 2020, one in six high school students in the state reported that they considered suicide in the past year.
These numbers are alarming for many reasons, including the fact that far too many students and school staff don’t have access to comprehensive information about mental health conditions and how to get help. NAMI California has worked tirelessly to change that, passing legislation that establishes a mental health curriculum to increase student awareness of mental illness and to reduce the stigma surrounding getting care.
Eight years ago, NAMI California advocated for legislation to promote mental health awareness programming. They advocated in many ways, for example, by working with the NAMI California Youth Advisory Council and student associations to bring youth advocates to meet with legislators and share their stories of why mental health education is needed.
The state legislature responded by creating a committee that would make recommendations on future mental health curricula. Using those recommendations, NAMI California helped write a subsequent bill that required mental health education in schools. As a result of their work, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 224 into law on Oct. 8, 2021.
There were three key aspects to NAMI California’s success:
SB 224 will bring much-needed mental health instruction to public middle and high schools in California (grades 7-12). Now, a mental health curriculum will be included in health education courses wherever health education courses are required to graduate. These courses will bring the discussion of mental health to the next level by focusing on serious mental illness through defining signs and symptoms of common mental health challenges.
Depending on student age and development level, the course instruction includes defining conditions, such as depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The courses will also help promote mental wellness and be appropriate for students of any age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and cultural background.
With more mental health discussions happening with the COVID-19 pandemic, NAMI California was able to leverage its reputation to drive the conversation about mental health education and reducing stigma for youth. We faced some opposition about creating another mandate in a heavily regulated environment. But that’s exactly where NAMI California is prepared to help advise their communities on implementing education for their students on mental health.
Ultimately, this legislation was personal to NAMI California’s team, who have children in the school system. This education will allow their kids to have comprehensive health education that could change their perspective on mental illness. This kind of education can help with compassion and access to resources from trusted individuals.
However, the work is not done yet. NAMI California partnered closely with the California Department of Education (CDE). Having this strong relationship helped in their advocacy efforts and now there is an opportunity to continue these conversations on evaluating the impact and to expand mental health education to more students in the future, including private schools, schools without a required health curriculum piece and how to expand this to grades K-6 in addition to 7-12.
With SB 224’s passage, students in California will be able to gain a foundational knowledge of mental health in the classroom and better understand how they can access support when needed.
Samira Schreiber is the Manager of State Legislative Analysis at NAMI National. She tracks and analyzes mental health related state legislation and manages NAMI’s 988 Crisis Response State Legislation Map.
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