A state law enacted in 2016 requires government schools to include mental health education in K-12 curricula. Local districts are required to develop lesson plans under guidance from the state Mental Health Education Advisory Council.
Mental health education will be incorporated into government school classes beginning in the 2018-19 academic year.
‘A Major Inherent Danger’
Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says the requirements seem well-intentioned but are likely to create further problems.
“On the one hand, this seems like it can and should be a useful and constructive role for schools to play,” Eden said. “Basic knowledge of a handful of well-established facts about mental health can help provide students the tools to navigate confusing times and delineate between normal problems and pathological ones.
“The fear is that the concepts and frames from mental illness will bleed over and pathologize normal behavior and experiences,” Eden said. “We have seen on college campuses a widespread adoption of the notion of ‘triggering,’ a term of art from mental illness that’s now a mental lens through which a generation sees the world. So, there is a major inherent danger: that schools will use the language of mental health to inculcate particular, and perhaps very unhealthy, ways of thinking about the human experience. This is a sensitive subject that parents ought to have significant oversight over. Parents ought to demand full curricular transparency, and perhaps a designated ombudsman that skeptical parents trust, to make sure that this mental health education stays on the healthy side.”
Ann Marie Banfield, a grassroots parent activist and education liaison for Cornerstone Action in New Hampshire, says unspecified treatment details and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data cited as justifying the curriculum decision cast doubt on the wisdom of the policy.
“My first concern is with the statistics they use to justify actions that they are taking,” Banfield said. “I’m not familiar with the CDC conducting double-blind, objective, peer-reviewed studies [on this subject]. The CDC does collect data from surveys through the Risk Behavior Surveys. Are the statistics authentic to begin with?
“Assuming that 20 percent of children are experiencing mental illness, as they suggest, my other concerns would be how they treat children in the public schools,” Banfield said. “If 20 percent are classified as having some sort of mental illness, are they treating 100 percent of the students? How are they treating the 20 percent or 100 percent of the students? What kind of mental illness are they treating? Depression? Suicidal thoughts? Behavior problems? Who is treating the students, and what credentials do they have to treat the more serious mental health problems?”
Questions Teachers’ Role
Banfield says she doesn’t think the average public school teacher is qualified to administer mental health evaluations of children.
“In New Hampshire, we found schools using teachers to assess students using a mental health assessment,” Banfield said. “I’ve had teachers contact me directly saying they are uncomfortable assessing their students. They were more bothered that their own children, who also attend a public school, were being assessed. They don’t know where the information goes, and they know the few hours of training the teachers receive does not qualify them for assessing their child’s mental health.
“I had a parent in Londonderry, [New Hampshire] contact me saying her child was removed from class and spoke to the school counselor, but when she asked to see the notes that were taken, the school refused to give them to her,” Banfield said. “She ended up pulling her kids out of the school and transferring them to a different school.”
Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at The John Locke Foundation, says he’s worried schools are not the right place for treating children with mental health problems.
“I think they identify an actual problem,” Stoops said. “I don’t think the issue is whether children face mental health challenges; there are plenty of examples, some of them tragic. There’s evidence of that. Really, the issue is whether the schools are the appropriate venue for tending to the mental health needs of students.
“This is the typical one-size-fits-all-approach to a problem that will only affect a fraction of the number of students with mental health issues of varying severity. And I’m worried other states are going to follow New York state’s lead and take the same type of approach by incorporating a comprehensive mental health curriculum into the public school system.”
‘Choice Has a Role’
Stoops says school choice would provide a better solution.
“I think educational choice has a role here,” Stoops said. “Giving parents the resources to send their children to schools that specialize in the identification and treatment of mental illness would allow the states to focus resources on those who would benefit the most.
“In a state like New York, it’s doubtful that school choice would ever be considered a solution for these sorts of problems, but other states hopefully will find school choice to be one of the avenues to finding a solution to this problem,” Stoops said.
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.