Republicans and Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond have not agreed on many issues during this year’s legislative session. But they did come together this week in the Senate to pass legislation calling for tailored mental health courses in all public schools.
Under Senate Bill 818, each public elementary, middle and high school would be required to provide — at each grade level — an “age-appropriate course of instruction on mental health.”
The mental health courses would be in addition to the conventional health instruction that students already receive.
“It’s about recognizing signs and symptoms of mental health challenges, promoting mental health, wellness and healthy strategies for coping with stress,” said state Sen. Richard Stuart, a Republican who represents parts of Prince William, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties.
Virginia’s Board of Education would be tasked with consulting with experts and developing mental health curriculum guidelines that would be used to create the courses. The bill also requires the Board to submit the guidelines to the State Board of Health for approval.
The guidelines would need to include instruction on general understanding themes of mental health and wellness, recognizing symptoms of common mental health challenges, and promoting the importance of overcoming common mental health stigmas.
“Children sometimes go through these things, and they don’t know what to do or where to turn,” Stuart said. “That is what ends up in some of these children tragically committing suicide.”
Democratic state Sen. Jennifer McClellan said the legislation would give kids “the tools they need to be able to communicate to their parents when something’s wrong.”
“How you deal with that with a fourth-grader is different than how you deal with that with an eighth- grader,” McClellan said, referring to the age-appropriate tailoring of the courses that would be required under the bill.
It passed with a vote of 39-1 Tuesday in the Virginia Senate and will now be considered by the house of delegates.
Republican Sen. Amanda Chase was the only person to vote against the bill, saying she was concerned that it would give students negative ideas that they didn’t necessarily have previously.
“We are literally advertising suicide, anxiety and depression to tiny minds that cannot comprehend consequences,” Chase said.
The bill would require mental health courses to be in place by the start of the 2024-2025 school year.
If you or someone you know needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress 24/7.
You can reach them at 988 or at the suicide and prevention website.