Public school districts will have to provide at least five hours of mental health instruction annually to students in 6th through 12th grades, with topics ranging from suicide prevention and substance abuse to mental health disorders, access to treatment and how to reduce the stigma around mental health.
Mental health issues have come to the forefront in Florida, particularly after the February 2018 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
By December 1 of each year, school districts will have to document the instruction– sending a plan to Florida’s Education Commissioner — and post the plan on the school district’s website.
The new requirement comes as Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis has made mental health awareness a top priority during her husband’s term as governor.
And the Florida State Board of Education approved a new set of rules Wednesday on the mental health instruction, which encompasses specific, grade-level courses and sets the qualifications of the people who will provide instruction. School districts will also have to submit an annual report on the program each July 1 to the Education Commissioner.
The State Board of Education data show that “in 2017, 28% of Florida high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row; 14% reported purposely hurting themselves without wanting to die; 14% reported having seriously considered attempting suicide; 11% reported having made a plan to commit suicide; and 8% reported a suicide attempt.”
But while the required mental health instruction is a worthwhile step, there’s more to be done.
State board of education member Michael Olenick raised the issue of understaffed counselors in Florida schools. Those counselors are on the front line when it comes to aiding students with mental health issues.
Olenick said the ratio of students to counselors is at 461 to 1, meaning just one school counselor for 461 students. That’s nearly double the caseload recommended by the American School Counselor Association – a ratio of 250 students to 1 counselor.
Earlier this year, the Florida Phoenix analyzed the ratio of school counselors to students across Florida’s school districts, finding that not one district had the recommended ratio of 250 to 1, among other findings.