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Mental health to become part of high school Virginia curriculum

News Virginian - 7/9/2018

WAYNESBORO - Virginia is now one of only two states that will require mental health education in public schools, after the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation this year.

The legislation, sponsored on the Senate side by Sen. Creigh Deeds, calls for the Virginia Board of Education to build mental health education into the 9th and 10th grade health and physical education curriculum for Virginia public school students. Deeds hopes the integration of the mental health education can happen in time for the start of school this fall.

Deeds, D-Bath, lost his son, Gus, in 2013 to suicide after a battle with mental illness. The senator told NPR that high school students need to recognize the warning signs of mental illness for themselves and for their peers. The senator said 10th grade is exactly the right time to give a person the tools to understand the illnesses.

Educators and health care professionals agree that creating an awareness of mental health is important.

Ryan Barber, director of student services for the Waynesboro Schools, said that school division "has long recognized the impact of mental health and well-being on our staff and students and welcomes the additional opportunity to educate our 9th and 10th graders about this important topic."

Barber said the mental health education "mandated by the state complements our health and PE curriculum and presentations included in our family life curriculum." He said the emphasis on mental health also complements professional development completed during the 2017-18 school year. Barber said 60 Waynesboro administrators, teachers, instructional assistants and school counselors in all city schools were trained and certified as youth mental health first aiders.

Barber said "the new law only furthers the conversation in Waynesboro Public Schools and is a welcome addition to our curriculum."

Eric Bond, the superintendent of the Augusta County Public Schools, applauds the new legislation.

"I think it is very important to educate our students regarding mental health," he said. Bond said the new curriculum for mental health "will certainly enhance and supplement some of the programs that we have already implemented such as anti-bullying campaigns."

Bond said the ability of students to identify the warning signs "and ask for assistance is essential." The superintendent said "it is imperative for us as a school community, all stakeholders, to understand needs of students with social and emotional needs and be able to provide the necessary services/education they need."

Dr. Colin Greene, the health director of the Lord Fairfax Health District in the northern Shenandoah Valley, said a peer recognizing the signs of mental illness can lead "to getting help" for the affected peer.

Greene said depression symptoms can be characterized by detachment from normal activities, a lowered appetite and inability to sleep. He said peers should also listen if someone talks about dying.

Previously, area school districts have gotten some measurement about students contemplating risky behaviors, including suicide, through risk-behavior surveys given to students.

The surveys were developed by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control. The CDC reports that suicide rates in the United States over the past two decades have risen 30 percent.


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