Mental Health Education Expands to Help Students Succeed
In an effort to eliminate stigmas and help students reach optimal health and wellness, a new health curriculum that places an increased emphasis on mental health education was implemented this year in schools across New York State. The ultimate goal, according to the New York State Office of Mental Health, “is to change the perception of mental illness and encourage future generations to ask for help when feeling depressed or anxious as easily as asking for help for an injured leg or sore throat.”
“Quality mental health education is especially urgent right now as our nation confronts serious issues that impact our children’s lives both in and out of school,” said Ms. Ellen Loewy, Director of Special Services for the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District. “This District has been ahead of the curve on this topic and has always included mental health as part of its health curriculum.”
According to Mr. Kevin Trentowski, Director of Athletics, Physical Education and Health, the District teaches mental health as a unit in grades 5-12, centering on identifying and coping with feelings and building self-confidence. The District also includes mental health as a theme that relates to all topics covered in the grades 5-12 health curriculum. In addition, social and emotional learning, encompassing skills needed to manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, and develop positive relationships, is interwoven into the overarching mental health curriculum for K-12 students.
“Students on all levels are building social and emotional learning skills through a host of exercises such as “reading books, having students share how they feel if they were in certain situations, reflective writing, and cooperative learning,” Mr. Trentowski said.
Left, Mr. Rizzuto conducts a health class that teaches students how to recognize the warning signs of someone who may be contimplating suicide. Right, students pair up to complete an exercise on the subject.
Looking at mental health education inside a high school classroom, health and physical education teacher Mr. Charlie Rizzuto said, “We study various emotions that a person goes through so students better understand them and can normalize them. For example, one of the emotions we discuss is love. During this lesson, we end the class with ‘I love you and I’ll see you tomorrow.’ In a class survey I conducted, some students wrote that if it weren’t for this class they never would have known what it is like for someone to say ‘I love you’ to them.”
Mr. Rizzuto said the class also explores the differences between sadness and depression, places added emphasis on the language used surrounding mental health, focuses on eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness and treatment, and helps students recognize the warning signs that they or someone else needs support.
“We discuss ways to cope with daily stress and ways students can find support, both inside and outside of the building, while working very closely with the support team in the District. Many times, we are the first ones students come to,” he said.
The Special Services staff, a team of highly qualified social workers, school psychologists, and counselors led by Ms. Loewy, work in conjunction with teachers, administrators and other staff members and with families, to identify students’ needs and address them with an appropriate plan with support from a variety of outside agencies. They include Oyster Bay High School psychologist Dr. Cara Riebe, Oyster Bay High School social worker Mr. Matthew Brown, Oyster Bay High School and Roosevelt Elementary School social worker Ms. Migdalia Rosario, Vernon School psychologist Dr. Allison Mueller, Vernon School social worker Ms. Nicole Silva and Roosevelt Elementary School psychologist Ms. Tracy Vieweg.
In addition to working with students with specific issues, the Social Services staff initiates and carries out various educational programs and events for all students that underpin the framework for mental health education and social and emotional literacy. Among them are Challenge Day, a two-day event that builds trust and empathy in students to create a more tolerant and accepting school environment; Red Ribbon/Kindness Week, a national initiative held district-wide with age-appropriate lessons that highlight the dangers of drugs and alcohol and promote the benefits of living healthy lifestyles, and Beautiful Me, a program that elevates self-esteem and empowers adolescent girls.
Assemblies focusing on such topics as anti-bullying and good decision-making also support the District’s health education goals. Some examples this year were “Box Out Bullying” assemblies for elementary students, “Ryan’s Story,” which addresses bullying and suicide, presented to 6th and 7th graders, and the high school-level “Teen Truth” assembly by Mr. Michael Sarich, a recovered addict who promotes the importance of good decision-making and healthy lifestyles.
Students in the new Mindfulness-Based Physical Education Class demonstrate yoga poses they learned as part of the mind-body fitness curriculum. At right, students learn selflessness through red bandana lessons inspired by Welles Crowther, who lost his life in 9-11 after saving many lives. He was identified as the hero with the red bandana. For more, visit
Under the Physical Education Department, which strives to build self-esteem and confidence through fitness, students learn selflessness by participating in the red bandana program, based on the heroism of Welles Crowther who lost his life in the World Trade Center after saving numerous lives. In addition, two sessions of a new elective for high school students has been added this year called Mindfulness-Based Physical Education. The course explores how students can get their bodies to function at their best by exploring various physical and mental fitness practices. Students participate in Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Bosu Ball and mind-body integration fitness activities. Mindfulness is also being explored at the elementary level. Last year, students at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School learned how to manage emotions by creating and using mindfulness jars, an exercise introduced by the school’s site-based team, and at Vernon School, a mindfulness room is in the works, complete with mind and body calming activities.
A Mindfulness room at James H. Vernon School has been established for students to engage in calming mind-body activities to help manage emotions and anxiety. At right, mindfulness was introduced at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School last year by the Site-Based team. Student made mindfulness jars filled with colorful glitter. The jar was used as a tool to manage emotions by turning the jar upside down and focusing on their breath as they watched the glitter fall to the bottom of the jar.
As classrooms shed more light on mental health education, the hope is that some of today’s startling statistics will eventually be dispelled. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it is estimated that 50 percent of chronic mental illnesses begin at age 14 and half of all lifetime cases of anxiety disorder begin as early as age 8. Moreover, early signs of mental illness are often mistaken for typical characteristics of childhood and adolescent development. The median delay between the onset of symptoms and treatment is 10 years.
“The effects of untreated mental illness are pervasive,” according to Ms. Loewy. “Over 60 percent of young adults with mental illness do not finish high school, they are four times less likely to go to college, trade school or obtain employment, and they are three times more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. With an increase in mental health education, staff, students, families and communities will be able to discuss mental health more openly and more effectively address prevention and treatment.”
Looking forward, other initiatives to support the mental health curriculum are on the horizon in the District.
“Already in place are meetings with principals and staff to bring mental health to the forefront of teachers’ thinking so that they can make connections when engaging in activities in class,” said Mr. Trentowski. “We are looking to add mental health education literature throughout the District buildings, provide workshops for parents, explore workshops and conferences for staff and build upon our current resources. Our ultimate goal is that we want mental health to be a normal and healthy dialogue for students so they can live happy, healthy, more productive lives, and we’ll continue to introduce new ideas to achieve that.”