Last week, the Florida legislature approved a mandate for mandatory mental health classes in Florida public schools. The law mandates students take at least five hours worth of courses each year from grades six through 12.
Not only do I think this law is a great idea, but I think we can go even further. Students at public universities should also have to take mental health classes.
Half of all mental illness in the U.S. begins before age 14, and 75 percent before age 24. This demographic is at prime risk for mental illness, and they need to be ready for it. In addition, many would have no prior knowledge to prepare them for the mental health challenges they may face. There are already classes teaching students about their bodies, sex and physical health. But until now, students weren’t taught about mental health issues. Mental health also isn’t discussed as frequently in everyday life as physical health, so students wouldn’t have a frame of reference either.
As described in the mandate, these classes would cover topics like how to identify signs of a mental illness, how to seek help for yourself or someone else and what to say to someone who has a mental illness. All of this would give students a baseline perspective on mental illness and what to do if themselves or someone close to them is struggling with it.
So if these students are already taught all these things every year in middle and high school, why do we need it in college? Not all college students attend public schools where these classes must be taught. And even for those who did, these lessons are so important they’re worth repeating. The most important reason is high school and college have different challenges. While students in high school have to deal with increased workload and new relationships, college students have to deal with that plus living at home for the first time, managing their own time, feeding themselves, and generally looking after themselves without their parents or guardians around. That can be a stressful experience for anyone, and while some can handle it better than others, every student should be taught how to deal with these changes responsibly and how to seek help if they need it.
If this program were to be implemented at UF, I don’t think it would be an enormous burden. Rather than every grade level, this would just be one three credit course students must complete before graduation. We already have one required class for all students (The Good Life and its successor ‘Quest’ classes), so what’s one more? The mental health class could even count for a science prerequisite so students are not overburdened with graduation requirements. The college could also partner with UF’s Counseling and Wellness Center for the program, and as an added bonus, this would likely necessitate a funding increase for the severely underfunded center. In addition to recapping what was covered in the public school classes, the college class would go deeper into the science of mental illness, the mental health challenges associated with college, and what to do to seek help as an adult.
The Florida legislature should act now while it has momentum. As soon as possible, legislators should pass a law mandating at least three credits worth of mental health instruction in all Florida public universities and colleges. In doing so, we would have a healthier and happier state, and teach students at all stages of life how to take care of their mental health.
Jason Zappulla is a UF history senior. His column appears on Tuesdays.