California Capitol Watch: Bills Focus on Pupils’ Mental Health

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By Eric Gelber

Senator Anthony Portantino has introduced two bills focusing on student mental health: SB 224 would require all students in California to receive age-appropriate mental health education. SB 14 would require that a proportion of each school’s staff and teachers receive evidence-based mental health training and would align mental health and behavioral health with physical health as it pertains to excused absences.

What problem/issue would the bills address?

Senator Portantino notes that “[i]t is inarguable that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis in California. Even before the pandemic, the rate of students struggling with mental health problems such as depression has steadily risen over the years. Now isolated from their family and friends, students are suffering even more. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and it is unfortunate that we neglect it in our curriculum. By educating kids from a young age, we can bring these issues out of the shadows and end the stigma and taboo surrounding the discussion of mental health.”

What would the bills do?

SB 224 would require school districts to ensure that all pupils in grades 1 to 12 receive medically accurate, age-appropriate mental health education from instructors trained in the appropriate courses at least once in elementary school, at least once in junior high school or middle school, and at least once in high school. Instruction would include, among other things, reasonably designed instruction on the overarching themes and core principles of mental health. Instruction and related materials would be required to, among other things, be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds, pupils with disabilities, and English learners.

SB 14 would require the State Department of Education to identify an evidence-based training program for local education agencies to use to train school employees having direct contact with pupils on behavioral health issues of youth, including recognizing the signs and symptoms of youth behavioral disorders, including common psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major clinical depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and common substance use disorders such as opioid and alcohol abuse. The training program would also be required to include instruction on how school staff can best provide referrals to youth behavioral health services or other support to individuals in the early stages of developing a
youth behavioral health disorder.

In addition, SB 14 would require a pupil to be excused from school for reasons related to the behavioral health of the pupil in the same manner as allowed for excused absences for physical health.

Comments

The legislative findings and declarations of SB 224 note that: Mental health is critical to overall health, well-being, and academic success. Mental health challenges affect all age groups, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes. Millions of Californians, including at least one in five youths, live with mental health challenges. Millions more are affected by the mental health challenges of someone else, such as a close friend or family member. Mental health education is one of the best ways to increase awareness and the seeking of help, while reducing the stigma associated with mental health challenges. The public education system is the most efficient and effective setting for providing this education to all youth.

Commenting in support of SB 224 on behalf of the California Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (a co-sponsor), CEO Jessica Cruz stated that “[m]ental illness impacts families, individuals and communities across our state on a daily basis. Schools are one of the first points of contact where students show early signs and symptoms of an onset of mental illness.  In order to change our culture in how we respond to mental illness, we must educate students early and often.  With suicide rates in young adults at an all-time high, it is more important than ever that we implement curriculum that will help connect students and families to the appropriate resources and treatments available.”

Also in support of SB 224, the CEO of co-sponsor California Alliance of Child and Family Services stated, “[t]he impact Covid-19 has had on the youth of our state has been staggering and is exacerbating inequities that existed before the pandemic began. But we believe there are steps we can take to positively impact the lives of generations of youth to come, and that is through mandatory mental health education in schools. By creating awareness of mental health from a young age, students will be able to recognize the signs of mental illness in themselves and their peers, allowing them to be connected to resources and receive help before things become more serious. Bringing discussions about mental health into the classroom is vital in reducing the stigma around mental illness.”

Also in support of SB 14, The CEO of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies notes that “[o]ne in six high school students report having considered suicide in the past year, while one in three LGBTQ students have had suicidal thoughts. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, youth mental and behavioral health needs to be a primary focus to protect and promote the wellbeing of our students. This legislation will provide teachers and students with vital knowledge and skills needed to support their students and peers who are experiencing a behavioral health challenge. COVID-19 has elevated the need to strengthen school-based partnerships, and SB 14 is an essential step in ensuring students have a safe and supportive educational environment as they transition to hybrid learning environments.”

Both SB 14 and SB 224 are scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on March 10th.

Eric Gelber, now retired, is a 1980 graduate of UC Davis School of Law (King Hall). He has nearly four decades of experience monitoring, analyzing, and crafting legislation through positions as a disability rights attorney, Chief Consultant with the Assembly Human Services Committee, and Legislative Director of the California Department of Developmental Services.


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