PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - There’s a new push to revamp health classes to include a focus on mental health in Arizona schools. Senate Bill 1376 in the legislature would require schools to have mental health instruction in the curriculum.
“Mental health is just as important as physical health with kids,” said Dr. Elizabeth Rice, a professor at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe who specializes in mental health. “Having anxiety or depression is just as important as having a broken bone or frequent headaches.”
She fully supports SB 1376, which calls for schools to “incorporate the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and the relationship of physical and mental health to enhance student understanding, social and emotional learning, attitudes and behavior that promote health and well-being.”
State Senator Sean Bowie (D-Dist. 18) presented the bill to the Education Committee on Tuesday.
"They don't have to meet a very rigid requirement," he said. "It's up to each district and each school to implement it as they see fit."
The mental health instruction would be allowed to be taught in classes other than health, in other words. Erin Lewis, whose 14-year-old is a patient of Dr. Rice, says this bill would help kids understand mental illness and hopefully stop some of the teasing.
"It'll give kids the tools they need to deal with their own emotions with the bullying – how to process that," she said.
Some schools already have varying degrees of mental health instruction and resources. Briana Ochoa, who dealt with anxiety and depression in high school, was able to come to terms with it through a club called 'Your Life Matters.' It taught kids to identify and discuss what they're feeling.
"Having this education at our school, at my high school, is what saved my life," she said to the Ed Committee. "It taught me that the way that I was feeling wasn't weird or wrong. That it was completely normal and that I wasn't always going to be stuck in this hole."
It's not just the kids who would benefit; Rice and Lewis both say this would prepare teachers to handle difficult conversations and help resolve bullying issues before they become a serious problem.
"By bringing this into the curriculum, by having these conversations with children, we're showing them that we care and that we're actually listening to them," Rice said. "They often feel very alone, and they feel very unheard. They feel as if there is nobody that is there for them."
When asked what she would add to the bill if she could, Lewis said she wants to make sure LGBTQ issues are included in the mental health discussion. She would also allow kids to take a certain number of mental health days off from school. Currently, neither of those items are specifically mentioned in SB 1376.