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‘We Need Your Help’ — The Timely Push To Get More Mental Health Education In California Schools

Rows of students sit at individual desks in a mostly monochromatic illustration. However, each student's head is shaded a different vibrant color.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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Looking back on his high school days a decade ago in the San Gabriel Valley, Matthew Diep doesn’t remember his teachers ever talking much about mental health.

“Stress was probably the only thing closely related to mental health that we learned about,” Diep said with a chuckle.

Educators And Advocates Say Mental Health Training In Schools Can’t Come Soon Enough.

But Diep does clearly remember his own struggles with mental health in his early teens.

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“I was in the process of recognizing that I was queer, that I was gay and not having the acceptance in my life to handle that realization,” he said.

Soon, students with mental health issues won’t have to suffer in silence. A new California law will, in a couple of years, require schools to expand mental health instruction. The curriculum for many California schools will include teaching kids about anxiety and depression and about serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

It’s something Diep wishes he had when he was in high school. As a teenager, Diep said he had really deep anxiety and depression from feeling like he had to hide his sexual identity from his family and others.

One day, Diep locked himself in his room and his mom called 911 because she was worried he might hurt himself.

If You Need Immediate Help

“Six policemen came to our house, they kicked down my door, they handcuffed me and they took me out onto a stretcher in front of my entire neighborhood in broad daylight,” Diep recalled. It’s an experience that he says traumatized him and inspired him to take action.

While attending UCLA and getting more involved with dance groups, Diep helped start a non-profit called Psypher. Now he visits schools all over L.A. County, teaching kids about mental health.

‘This Is Desperately Needed, We Need Your Help’

The new law requires the state department of education, by 2024, to create a program for junior high and high schools that covers symptoms of anxiety and depression, and defines serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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“The young people were coming to us and saying, This is desperately needed, we need your help,” said Adrienne Shilton, director of public policy for the California Alliance, which supported the bill.

Shilton said mental health education across the state varies widely from district-to-district. Part of the idea behind the new law is to provide some consistency and have mandated mental health instruction.

While Shilton thinks it’s a huge step in the right direction, she doesn’t think the law goes far enough.

For one, it only applies to schools that already have a dedicated health course. The California Health Education Standards currently direct schools to teach impacts of nutritional choices, the effects of drugs and alcohol and some basic mental health concepts, too. But 40 percent of school districts in the state don’t teach health at all and won’t be required to comply.

While she, too, applauds the new requirements, Whittier Union High School District School Psychologist Stephanie Murray said she would have liked the bill to include elementary schools as well.

“If you can identify these things early, before it becomes a crisis, that’s just so much more beneficial,” she said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Murray said she’s seen a rise in anxiety among kids who are stressed out about everything from getting the virus to its effect on their parents financially.

A group of young students are standing together outside a school building. They are all wearing light blue surgical masks.
Kids line up outside school on the first day at Montara Avenue Elementary School in South Gate.
(Alborz Kamalizad

She also said kids are learning about suicide at a very young age.

That may include hit TV shows, such as Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and HBO’s “Euphoria,” which take up serious teen mental health issues. The former has faced significant criticism for how it depicts mental health.

“Who do you want your kids to hear this from? Do you want them to hear it from a trusted adult,” Murray posited, “or do you want them to hear it from the media and kids?”

Murray’s push for mental health education underscores alarming statistics from the CDC, the U.S. Surgeon General and several others. In the first three quarters of 2021, children’s hospitals said ER visits for self-injury and suicide attempts or ideation in children was at a 42% higher rate than during the same time period in 2019.

‘I’ve Missed Out On So Many Things’

“We have students that are still struggling,” said Reynaldo Vargas-Carbajal Jr., a psychologist with the Downey Unified School District. “Really letting students know where they can seek out the supports is gonna be vital for them to start moving in the right direction,” he added.

Vargas said his district currently sponsors grievance, anxiety and depression groups for students. He’s not sure yet what the new required mental health curriculum might look like at his schools.

For its part, the L.A. Unified School District, which does offer health courses, said in a statement that it’s “still reviewing/evaluating the implications of [the law] and how it will impact our existing curriculum offerings.”

I’m just like, wow, if I had this [education] younger... I think that would have built a foundation so that when I was experiencing those hard times I could have navigated it a lot better.
— Matthew Diep

California Senator Anthony Portantino, the bill’s main sponsor, said youth are facing once-in-a-generation challenges right now.

The legislator said he recently spoke with his daughter about experiences lost to the pandemic.

“She said ‘Dad, I’ve missed out on so many things, it doesn’t really matter,’” Portantino said. “She missed out on her senior year of high school, she missed out on her freshman year of college, she missed out on the prom ... the challenges are significant for our kids,” Portantino said.

For mental health advocate Matthew Diep, who supported the new law through his work with the California Youth Empowerment Network, the increased awareness can’t come soon enough.

“I’m just like, wow, if I had this [education] younger... I think that would have built a foundation,” he lamented, “so that when I was experiencing those hard times I could have navigated it a lot better.”

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