Alaska House considers bill that would provide guidelines for mental health education in public schools 


Maddie McCarthy


The Alaska House Health and Social Services Committee discussed a bill last week that would introduce mental health education into K-12 public schools. 

Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson (D-Anchorage), would amend the state’s current health education laws to include guidelines on mental health education instruction for students. 

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“The Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development and the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) will develop guidelines for instruction in mental health in consultation with numerous stakeholders,” Gray-Jackson said. “The standards will be developed in consultation with counselors, educators, students, administrators, and other mental health organizations to form effective guidelines for school boards, teachers, and students.” 

The board of education and DEED will be responsible for implementing the curriculum into schools, Gray-Jackson said. 

 “[The bill] aims to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and increase students’ knowledge of mental health, encouraging conversation around and understanding of the issue.” 

— Gray-Jackson  

Besse Odom, a legislative aide for Gray-Jackson, said the bill would also amend a current statute to allow parents to direct their child’s education to ensure the same laws in place for general education are applied to mental health education. 

“[SB 24] would allow parents to be notified at least two weeks before any class or program regarding mental health is offered,” Odom said. 

Odom said SB 24 would ensure that mental health education is developmentally appropriate. The curriculum would be developed by the state board, which would consult with the Department of Health, Department of Family and Community Services, and other entities, she said. 

The bill also requires a report to be submitted to the Senate secretary and chief clerk of the House detailing curriculum guidelines and an explanation of how they were developed, Odom said. 

SB 24 would go into effect July 1. The board would have to develop the curriculum’s guidelines within two years of that date. 

Steven Pearce, director of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR)—a mental health watchdog organization founded by the Church of Scientology—spoke in opposition to the bill.  

Pearce expressed concern about the state’s mental health system’s use of medication for treatment, and wants parents to be informed of this. 

“Parents must be provided meaningful informed consent about the current mental health system’s overreliance on psychotropic drugs and waiting for children to face emotional crises before acting,” Pearce said. “Schools should not be conduits or referral centers pushing exclusively psychiatric options on parents and youth.” 

Pearce compared physical and mental health policy. He noted that there are no laws mandating children to eat vegetables or walk two miles every day. However, there are currently laws in place that allow certain individuals to evaluate children for mental illnesses without the use of objective physical or medical tests.  

SB 24 would need to be amended in order to gain CCHR’s support, Pearce said.  

“We think the education should be mandated by the legislature to be much broader to include naturopaths, to include alternative practitioners, who will look and do physical examinations and address and rule out organic and actual medical issues and nutritional issues, allergies, reactions to toxic metals, (and) life situations,” Pearce said. “All these things that are known to cause an emotional situation that can mimic a psychiatric disorder.”

“Before we put anybody on a psychotropic drug, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we actually address the physical nature and the known causes that could be treated and eliminated.” 

Ann Ringstad, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Alaska, spoke in support of SB 24. 

“This bill has been a long time in the making, and we believe it contains the elements necessary to get across the finish line at last,” Ringstad said. 

Ringstad noted that teachers, counselors, and other school staff may be more likely to notice when a student is struggling because children spend so much time in school. She said it is important for staff to have guidelines on how to talk about mental health so they can properly guide students in their formative years. 

“What’s really important here is to open the discussion about mental health so students are not afraid to come forward if they’re struggling,” Ringstad said. “It’s also important for schools to have the necessary statewide guidelines available to recognize and address the growing number of mental health challenges in our schools.” 

SB 24 awaits scheduling in the House Education Committee. 

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