As students return to school, a new law requires all high schools in Virginia to include mental health in their physical education curriculum for ninth and tenth graders.
Lawmakers signed the bill in early July, making Virginia the first state to require mental health education in schools, along with New York, although the alter mandated the topic be covered in all grades. The law comes on the heels of data from the Centers for Disease Control about the rising suicide rate among young people.
Educators in Winchester and Frederick County, Va. say mental health education is critical and they welcome the new legislation.
“I like that it gives us the freedom to choose… what fits for our community,” said Jusy McKiernan, interim coordinator of student services for Winchester Public Schools. “But it’s also saying, ‘this is important, make it happen.'”
Both districts incorporate mental health education into their physical education curricula and say they are consistently up to date with Virginia’s state standards when it comes to mental health education.
“We’ve included the mental health curriculum in our lesson plans and our curriculum for many, many years prior,” said Pepper Martin, head of Sherando High School’s physical education and health department. Martin added that he sees the law as pushing schools that were not up to standard.
“It really didn’t take a law for us to get that into place,” said Kim Hinebaugh, Martin’s counterpart at James Wood High School.
Both school districts hope educating students on topics like depression, anxiety, and suicide will help kids recognize those symptoms in themselves and their peers.
“If we can give them the skills, the tools, to lower that stigma and get help,” said McKiernan. “We’re going to save lives.”