As students head back to the classroom, New York officially becomes one of just two states requiring mental health education for all elementary, middle and high school students. Many school districts, such as the Shenendehowa Central School District, began offering services long before the law took effect.

But in many schools, mental health education hasn’t always been a top priority. Since starting at Shen four years ago, health educator Dustin Verga has seen attitudes change.

“Mental health was not a deliberate part of the instruction. Certainly mental health is something we all face but it wasn’t something that we all took into account without stigma,” said Verga.

Today, when it comes to mental health education, Shen is considered a leader.

“The health education teachers here at Shenendehowa have been an integral piece to making this happen. They’ve been very involved at the state level,” said Rebecca Carman, director of policy and community development for the Shenendehowa Central School District.

Health educators from Shen wrote guidelines for mental health education published by the state Education Department to help other school districts. New this school year, New York State requires mental health education for all elementary, middle and high school students.

“It forced us to rethink how we’re delivering the curriculum and what we’re teaching and really forced us to look at where our gaps are,” said Carman.

The law does not require any specific curriculum. Rebecca Carman oversees Shen’s curriculum. In elementary schools, counselors teach kids about things like managing emotions.

“I think that that is important that it is not just in high school because that is way too late. We start right from 5 years old,” said Verga.

The education continues through grade 12 with instruction in health classes. But Carman says outreach doesn’t end when courses are complete. Staff members are encouraged build relationships with students and help them navigate difficult symptoms of mental illness like depression and anxiety.

“We need to look to continue to build relationships with students because relationships minimize risk,” said Carman.