Multiple Bills Addressing Students’ Mental Health are Now Law

By Beth Meyerhoff, California State PTA Advocate

Fear and isolation heightened during the pandemic have reinforced California State PTA’s long-standing commitment to the mental health of children and the need for adult education to address youth mental health challenges. Our advocacy team applauds Governor Gavin Newsom’s signing of a trio of bills to support the mental health needs of students. 

Senate Bill 14 (Portantino) mandates that student absences for mental and behavioral health are treated the same as excused absences for physical health.

Thirty percent of high school students report experiencing symptoms of depression and COVID-19 has further increased the mental health issues children face according to reports cited by Senator Portantino, the author of this bill.

Thanks to SB 14, behavioral health will now be included within the “illness categories” that are legally considered excused absences (Education Code Section 48205). In addition, the California Department of Education (CDE) must identify a training program to address youth behavioral health.

California State PTA believes behavioral health evaluation and services are critical for student development. We support providing information and education to understand and sustain children, youth, and family behavioral health and social-emotional development.

Senate Bill 224 (Portantino) requires middle and high schools to include instruction in mental health if the schools offer courses in health education.

For schools that offer health education courses, this bill requires that those courses include mental health instruction. The course shall cover symptoms of common mental health challenges, promoting mental health wellness, and how to find assistance from professionals, among other requirements. Additionally, it shall include developing an awareness of mental health challenges across all populations and “the impact of race, ethnicity and culture on the experience and treatment of mental health challenges.” The State Department of Education must develop a plan to expand mental health instruction in California public schools on or before January 1, 2024.

According to Senator Portantino’s office, “Education about mental health is one of the best ways to increase awareness, empower students to seek help, and reduce the stigma associated with mental health challenges.”

California State PTA supports age-appropriate social and emotional learning and mental health education for all students. As an advocacy organization, California State PTA supports legislation that creates a safe and accepting environment in schools. 

Assembly Bill 309 (Gabriel) requires the California Department of Education (CDE) to develop model referral protocols for addressing pupil mental health.

The development of model mental health protocols required by this bill would guide schools and local educational agencies (LEAs) in “appropriate and timely intervention for pupil mental health concerns.” The protocols will be posted on the CDE website and used on a voluntary basis.

The Assembly Bill analysis quoted the Student Mental Health Policy Workgroup which noted the connection between mental wellness and academic achievement, attendance, and behavior. The Workgroup also said California’s educators acknowledge their lack of preparedness in addressing pupil mental health challenges as a major barrier to instruction. 

California State PTA passed its resolution, Mental Health: Treatment and Support in 1999 (reviewed 2017), calling on “ the California State PTA and its units, councils and districts [to] urge that members of the education community and local law enforcement agencies receive training to ensure that peace officers and educators can recognize symptoms of mental illness and appropriately respond when dealing with persons, especially children, and youth, who show signs of mental illness.” 

In addition, at the 2020 California State PTA Convention, members passed a resolution Mental Health Service for Our Children and Youth to support mental health wellness and social-emotional learning policies, including staff training.