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New Virginia Law Mandates Mental Health Education In Public Schools


This week, New York and Virginia become the first two states to require mental health education in public schools. This comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a 30 percent rise in suicide rates in the U.S. in the past two decades.

Virginia state Senator Creigh Deeds knows the reality behind these statistics all too well. In 2013, his son repeatedly stabbed him and then killed himself. He was 24 years old. Senator Deeds was one of the sponsors of the new Virginia law, and he joins us now to talk about it. Senator Deeds, thank you very much for speaking with us.

CREIGH DEEDS: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: I read that this decision to sponsor this law came after you listened to a presentation from high schoolers in your district.

DEEDS: Yes. And I was really blown away by their thoughtfulness, by their passion. These young people had seen bullying in school. They'd seen their peers under pressure who had either died by suicide or come close to dying by suicide. And specifically, they had really pretty well thought out about why it was important to target ninth- and 10th-graders and why health class was the place to talk about mental health.

CHANG: And what do you think ninth- and 10th-graders need to know about mental health?

DEEDS: OK, they need to know the basics about how mental illness affects a person. They need to know what the warning signs are, what to look for in their peers and in themselves. You know, 70 percent of those people who struggle with mental illness first experience an episode sometime between 14 and 24. So that's - in 10th grade is exactly the right time when people ought to be given the tools they need to be able to understand these illnesses.

CHANG: It sounds like there was no controversy as to how important this was. But who ultimately would come up with the details of the curriculum?

DEEDS: The board of education. The parameters around this were drawn by this legislation, and they're pretty broad parameters. But the details have to be worked out by the board of education and to have be built into the curriculum for ninth- and 10th-graders. And I'm hopeful that some work will be done this summer so we can begin the program in the fall.

CHANG: And will teachers get additional training to develop more of an expertise in mental health issues?

DEEDS: I think they will have to. I'm very hopeful that some of our institutions of higher learning when they're training health teachers can do a better job of incorporating some awareness of mental illnesses in their curriculum.

CHANG: But has the state Legislature provided extra funds to provide that training?

DEEDS: We haven't done it yet. I mean, at some point - this year we invested more money in mental illness and behavioral health issues than we ever have before - $192 million over the biennium. So we've taken a major step this year. The last few years, we've done some pretty important things in terms of recognizing what we need to do to provide more services to those people and families that struggle. But we're not where we should be, and very few states are.

CHANG: As we mentioned, this is obviously an issue that resonates quite deeply and quite personally with you. You said after your son died that the state had failed your son, that he was turned away from an institution before he took his own life. What are some things you feel people still do not understand about mental illness?

DEEDS: Well, at the end of the day, sometimes they don't know how to react to someone who is struggling. And sometimes just our language - there was recently a headline in a local newspaper about a loony bin. Sometimes we just insult those people who struggle. Mental health issues need to be given the same dignity as physical health issues.

CHANG: Senator Creigh Deeds, thank you very much for joining us.

DEEDS: Thank you, ma'am. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.