By Colin A. Young
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 20, 2017.....Three women from north central Massachusetts were on hand Thursday to watch as the Senate passed a bill they wrote to give high schools the option of adding mental health education to their health courses.
The Senate's approval of the bill marked a milestone for the college-aged women, who began their quest to add a mental health component to health education while attending Leominster High School.
The bill (S 2112), filed by Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, would expressly state that public high schools may supplement their physical health education with mental health education in areas including mental illness, teenage brain development, stress management, physical health, violence prevention, ecological and community health and overcoming mental illness stigma.
Though the bill is only a few lines long, the women spearheading the effort -- Kyrah Altman, Lauren Wilkins and Alex Buckman -- also developed more than 900 pages of curriculum for a course to teach physical and mental health to high schoolers in one course.
"It has been designed to meet all of the Massachusetts health education standards and the national health education standards," said Altman, who now serves as president of Let's Empower, Advocate and Do (LEAD), the nonprofit that grew out of their advocacy. "So our vision is for a school to literally incorporate our curriculum as our health class because it teaches both physical and mental health equally and it meets all the standards."
Flanagan described the curriculum as a "health education supplement that would incorporate all the information from the health information class while expanding on the mental health topics that affect students." She added that adopting this curriculum would not require a school to hire any new teachers or staff, or spend additional money.
The women's advocacy began when they were sophomores at Leominster High School when in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre they formed a group to try to take on issues like gun control, substance use, domestic violence and poverty.
By senior year, the group came to a realization that led them to focus their efforts on mental health and begin working on a mental health education curriculum.
"We realized that every single social issue that we tried attacking in the past, we could see this common theme, this common thread of untreated mental illness was at the foundation of everything we were doing," Altman said.
She added, "Then we said, if mental illness is a really big problem especially for our age group and we're seeing it play out in the community as people become adults, why aren't we learning about this in health class?"
The women soon learned the Massachusetts health education framework had not been updated since 1999 and began to use the existing framework as a starting point for a new framework.
"We wanted to make it so that it met all of the state frameworks but also incorporated mental health topics and stressed the importance of physical health and mental health together and how they are impacting one another," Wilkins said. "So it covers things like nutrition but also eating disorders and body image problems. And it also covers things like stress management, which is super important for high school students and a lot of people don't know how to tackle it and how to manage their time well."
The curriculum was used at Leominster High School last school year and Wilkins said the students who took the elective course enjoyed it a lot.
"It showed increases in care-seeking behaviors in students, decreases in stigma around these topics and it's running again next year," she said.
In addition to Leominster, LEAD is in talks with a handful of other central Massachusetts school systems about adopting their curriculum.
After the Senate passed the bill on a voice vote Thursday, the women told the News Service they now plan to get in touch with House members to convince them to advance their bill so it can become law.
After Thursday's vote, the women reflected on the work that led them to this point and the process that began long before they graduated high school and began their own higher education.
Buckman said, "Since then it's just kind of been a rollercoaster ride of waiting and hoping."