School districts react to new mental health mandate

HENDRY COUNTY — On July 17, the State Board of Education voted to require every Florida public school to provide students in grades 6-12 at least five hours of mental health instruction.

Education officials at the Florida Department of Education first proposed the change in June following a meeting with Florida’s first lady, Casey DeSantis, who has made mental health awareness one of her top priorities.

“Ron and I have traveled the state and have heard from many families who voice concern about the struggles that adversely affect so many of our children,” said Mrs. DeSantis before the board voted on the measure. “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.”

School districts will now be required to annually provide a minimum of five hours of instruction to grades 6-12 students related to youth mental health awareness and assistance. According to the new mandate the instruction must include awareness of signs and symptoms, process for getting or seeking help for themselves or others, awareness of resources and what to do or say to peers struggling with mental health disorders.

The framework of mandate has yet to be completely finalized and pushed out to districts as of this time. The mandate did not specify an implementation date.

“It’s going to take a team effort to get this ready,” explained Hendry County Schools Deputy Superintendent Robert Egley. “We have many legislative mandates coming down through the Office of Safe Schools and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act and this will be another one will we respond to. Currently our student services support team is working to put together an awareness program for signs and symptoms of kids that may need mental help.”

Dr. Egley says Hendry County is also looking at making sure there is more awareness of currently available resources such as the Fortify Florida app and the National Suicide Prevention hotline.

“Often times they might not want to tell one of us but they have resources that they can go to and remain anonymous,” continued Dr. Egley. “We’re going to be finalizing our plans as we move forward in the school year. Because like for many school districts, this has just been put on our plate so we really hadn’t had time to finalize everything yet.”

Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran says these are just the first step in raising awareness of mental health.

“It’s no secret that mental illness robs students of the ability to reach their full potential,” said Mr. Corcoran, “and we are joining forces to combat this disease and give our students the tools they need to thrive. We are going to reinvent school-based mental health awareness in Florida, and we will be the number one state in the nation in terms of mental health outreach and school safety — all because of the governor’s and first lady’s remarkable vision. As usual, we will be a model of innovation and reform for other states to mimic. First Lady DeSantis has taken the lead to get the ball rolling with her recent Hope for Healing launch, and we are building on the momentum of her great leadership.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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