Florida schools will be required to provide mental health education

Lessons aim to reduce stigma, help students understand disorders

ORLANDO, Fla. – Students in schools across Florida will soon be required to receive specific mental health lessons that will focus on prevention, awareness and reducing stigma.

Members of the State Board of Education voted Wednesday in favor of the proposal, which will require at least five hours of mental health education per year for students in grades 6-12. School officials will need to submit lesson plans by Dec. 1 of each year then by July 1, they'll need to provide documentation that verifies the implementation and completion of that plan.

The new requirements will go into effect beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Current health education requirements include a mental health component, but there's no mechanism in place to ensure that schools are following through with the instruction.

According to the Department of Education, mental health lesson plans will need to include: 

  • Recognition of signs and symptoms of mental health disorders;
  • Prevention of mental health disorders;
  • Mental health awareness and assistance;
  • How to reduce the stigma around mental health disorders;
  • Awareness of resources, including local school and community resources;
  • The process for accessing treatment;
  • Strategies to develop healthy coping techniques;
  • Strategies to support a peer, friend, or family member with a mental health disorder;
  • Prevention of suicide; and
  • Prevention of the abuse of and addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and drugs.

State leaders cited key statistics when explaining why they decided to implement the new proposal. They noted that according to the Florida Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2017, 28% of Florida high schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks and 14% have intentionally harmed themselves. 

[Suicide prevention: Spotting the warning signs and getting help]

“We know that 50 percent of all mental illness cases begin by age 14, so we are being proactive in our commitment to provide our kids with the necessary tools to see them through their successes and challenges. Providing mental health instruction is another important step forward in supporting our families,” first lady Casey DeSantis said.

Many local parents said they support the new mandate.

Angela Fleming has three sons.  

"We suffered a loss of a 13-year-old, someone who was close to our family, and if those things had of been in place for that kid, maybe they couldn’t talk to their parents, but maybe a teacher could have been a voice for them," Fleming said.

Other parents questioned how it would work.

"So you’re comfortable with your kids learning things like anything at school, who's going to be teaching it?" questioned Mike Semming. 

A child therapist said it’s vital for kids to have someone at school to confide in. 

Marizayda Torres, a child therapist, said it’s vital for children to have someone they can confide in at school. She said she supports the new mandate, as long as the person providing the lesson is trained and qualified in mental health.

"(Children) have their own language, and they also connect with peers, teaches and other adults,"  Torres said. "(They need) someone who is educated in vast diversity, cultural, language, socioeconomic status." 

To see the current mental health plan for your child's school district, click here.

News 6 contacted officials from each district in Central Florida to get their reaction to the new mental health plan. Their unedited responses are provided below. This story will be updated as more replies are received.

Lake County

"Mental Health Plans are due to the state by Aug. 1, and instruction is part of our plan here in Lake. We agree it’s important. But we are still working on the details for implementation. We are considering options and anticipating additional guidance from FLDOE."

Marion County

"We were aware we were expected to educate students on mental health issues but were not aware of the specific form it would take. We just found out about the mandate and were not provided any opportunity for input. 

"We have several teams formed by school psychologists and social workers who have received the appropriate training from the state to implement this mandate. We are developing the implementation strategy now."

Osceola County

"Our School Board places a great emphasis on student mental health, so much so that it is included as a goal in the district’s new three-year strategic plan currently being drafted. 

"Currently we have applied for a Youth Mental Health Aid pilot for teens - awaiting an answer.

"We are working with the National Association Mental Illness (NAMI) for their program, Ending the Silence for High School.

"Our Student Services Dept. is also working with Guidance and the district’s Leadership Team to develop the process that would work best for our schools and our students. 

"This notification is fairly new and we want to make sure we do best practice for our students."

Seminole County

"We just learned about some of the specifics yesterday so, still too early to really know all the particulars just yet. We'll obviously comply with the mandate as needed and do have trained school mental health counselors already within the district."

About the Authors: