Skidmore Faculty Member Credited in NYS Mental Health Guide
(photo taken from NYS comprehensive guide)
A 2016 New York State law that requires K-12 teachers to address mental health as an aspect of wellness recently went into effect this July, in preparation for the current school year. Accompanying the law is a comprehensive guide for teachers, titled “Mental Health Education in Schools: Linking to a Continuum of Well-Being.” Skidmore faculty member Dr. Laura Ficarra, a lecturer in the Education department, is credited in this guide for her affiliation with the NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. The law reveals a renewed focus on the importance of mental health, especially for children, and aims to decrease stigma surrounding mental illness.
The new law recognizes that one in five students will have a mental health condition, and that the onset of mental health diseases occurs around age 14. It seeks to treat mental health as an aspect of wellness — similar to physical or nutritional wellness. Mental health, and the need to address it, has actually been included in the Commissioner's Regulations since the 1990s, but it seems recent events have revitalized NYS’s commitment to ensuring this type of instruction is provided.
However, NYS is a local decision state, which means that the education department can not write curriculum for schools. Instead, the department proves requirements for teachers to address, leaving the actual lesson plans for schools to create. This is why the comprehensive guide, complete with Dr. Ficarra’s expertise, is vital for teachers.
Dr. Ficarra works in the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) and the state education department, where she was asked to be apart of the comprehensive guide.
“I realized we needed to have a conversation in a broader sense. One of the strengths I brought to the workroom was being able to make recommendations about how teachers can, in a very practical way, support student’s emotional need,” explains Dr. Ficarra.
According to the comprehensive guide, the new law’s purpose is to “provide educators, school district personnel, parents/guardians, students and community organizations with information on mental health education provided in school.” NYS is not asking teachers to be clinicians, or to take the place of medical help. Instead, the education department is looking for school personnel and teachers to have a basic understanding of mental health issues.
The best way to achieve prevention is working with with the youngest students on how to stay well in terms of their mental health. Teachers are great at prevention. They have already been taught to recognize students who may be behind in reading or behavioral development. But they have not been equipped with standards, support or information to recognize signs of mental illness until now. With this addition, stigma surrounding mental health may decrease.
“From my perspective, the biggest barrier that has established a stigma around mental health is ignorance. And I don’t mean that in a punitive or nasty way, but people really do not understand mental health conditions,” explained Dr. Ficarra. “If parents don’t really know what to look for, teachers often have a heightened sense of developmental stages and will be able to support the student as they’re developing.”
Schools often act as equalizers for students. With the mental health law being instituted, more students, from all backgrounds, will have access to the support and information they need. NYS has also passed new Social Emotional Learning benchmarks that, while not required, outline important standards.
This new law, and everything outlined in the guide, although exciting, means a lot of work for teachers and school district personnel.
“For this [transition] to go well, teachers are going to have to take a look at what they know and challenge themselves. Only then the stigma will neutralize,” explained Dr. Ficarra.
Dr. Ficarra recognizes that while this practice is only required in K-12 classrooms, she hopes there will be implications for colleges across NYS, and eventually the nation.