Advancing Mental Health Awareness and Access Through Schools, with the Association for Mental Health and Wellness

September 20, 2018

by Michael Stoltz, LCSW, Association for Mental Health and Wellness, Chief Executive Officer

There’s been an important and encouraging new development on the mental health front in New York State.

A new law holds forth the promise that significantly greater numbers of New Yorkers will be seeking out the care they need – and getting this care – in the years to come. That’s because the law requires schools to incorporate education and awareness about mental health in grades as early as kindergarten, thereby equipping the younger generation with the awareness and skills they need to seek out help for themselves and/or their friends and loved ones. Early intervention with any illness usually leads to better health outcomes, according to clinical guidelines and research. Such is the case with many mental illnesses that are chronic and lifelong.

As of July 1, 2018, an amendment to the state’s education law requires that mental health education must be provided in classrooms statewide. All elementary, middle, and high schools in New York State must modify their curriculum to include mental health as part of existing physical health instruction. The governor signed the legislation in 2016. 

The welcome change is largely the outcome of five years of advocacy led by the Mental Health Association of New York State. New York State should be proud to now stand as a national leader in this vanguard modernization of our health education requirements. Virginia is the only other state with a similar law, and coincidentally, its law went into effect on the exact same day. 

However this attention to actually getting people into care would be insufficient, were it not for legislation passed by both houses in June 2018. The “Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Report Act" strengthens the federal and state mental health parity laws in place by requiring health plans and insurers to submit key data to the Department of Financial Services to assess insurers’ and health plans’ compliance with state and federal parity laws. This includes data on key parity measures – such as network adequacy and claims performance –to ensure that people are getting care when they seek it.

Mental health providers, as well as primary care practitioners who are often the first ones to encounter patients struggling with mental illness, have been painfully aware of the numerous obstacles to care. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, young adults aged 18-25 years have the highest prevalence of mental illness (22 percent) compared to adults aged 26-49 years (21 percent) and aged 50 and older (15 percent). About half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14. About 22 percent of youth aged 13-18 experience serious mental disorders in a given year. 

This is why the mental health education in schools law is so pivotal and groundbreaking. It has the power and promise to abolish the stigma associated with mental health and encourage those who need help to seek it. And the Parity Report Act has the promise to ensure that more children, adolescents, and young adults find that care.
Stigma and misinformation about mental illnesses are the most prevalent barriers to people obtaining care but the parity discrepancies have also contributed. An informative report conducted by the Roslyn Heights-based North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in January 2018 found that the majority (50%) of people who had successfully entered mental health care, reported it was significantly more challenging to find mental health care as opposed to physical health care. Three out of five said it took between two and 16 contacts to make a connection with mental health care.

Almost 24 percent couldn’t find providers that accepted their insurance. Nearly 39 percent had problems with affordability, 21 percent cited personal indecision as a factor, and 24 percent said their attempts at accessing help were futile.

Regrettably, these obstacles contribute to increasing rates of suicide, substance abuse, addiction morbidities, legal problems, social isolation, and other social and economic struggles. 

The mental health education in schools law and the just-signed parity report act area good start to helping address many of these barriers.

To help with the implementation of the education law, MHANYS launched an online School Mental Health Resource and Training Center, which is available to public and private schools statewide. The Center, supported with funding from the New York State Legislature and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, provides assistance and guidance, a hotline for school districts, and a team of experts in education and mental health.

Coupled with insurance parity strengthening, the visionary mental health education in schools law will encourage early intervention for mental health conditions – breaking from a pattern where too many commence their care after a hospital or ER visit. It can also serve as a catapult to efforts to ensure the repair of access issues. Let’s encourage and support our school districts to all do what they can to make the law a success. 

The mission of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness is to drive evidence-based practices, information, education, and resources to the residents of Suffolk County. Learn more about the organization and how they can connect you with resources by visiting