Schools’ mental-health curriculum is essential


I’d like to think it was all just an innocent mistake – some easy-to-explain miscommunication or misunderstanding between our school district and the Mental Health Association of Indian River County.

And, maybe, it was.

It’s entirely possible there was some confusion in the rush to prepare for the just-started school year, especially since Sara Ange, the district’s newly hired mental wellness coordinator and lead counselor, didn’t start until July 1.

Still, it’s difficult to believe that Dr. Phil Cromer, the Mental Health Association’s chief executive officer, or any member of his leadership team misheard or misinterpreted what was said during a recent discussion about something so important.

Was the school district really going to abandon the wildly successful “Erika’s Lighthouse” mental health curriculum that the association’s counselors had been delivering for the past five years to our public-school students in grades 6 through 9?

Now? At a time when too many children are struggling with mental-health issues? When the association’s classes and counseling are needed most to educate students about depression, help them cope with anxiety and prevent suicide?

The answer, we learned Friday, is no.

But that’s not what Cromer said he was told earlier this month in his team’s 45-minute meeting with Ange and other district representatives – and he’s responding accordingly.

“At this moment, we have no plans to be in the schools,” Cromer said in a phone interview Friday, my second conversation with him in the past two weeks. “It takes quite a bit of planning to coordinate with the schools, and the school year has already started.

“So we’ve already switched our focus to more of an outreach effort,” he added. “There’s still a high need for mental health services for kids, and we’re going to work with teachers and school counselors in hopes that we can continue getting referrals to our facility here in Vero Beach.

“We’d rather be in schools, but we needed to react to what we’ve been told.”

What, exactly, did the district say? That’s where this story should raise concerns, or at least curiosity.

When I called School Superintendent David Moore last week, he said he wasn’t aware of any change in the status of the district’s mental-health curriculum, but added that he would check on it.

Two days later, he sent a text message that read: “We are using the curriculum.”

When I pressed him for details, he put me in touch with Ange and Eric Seymour, assistant superintendent for student affairs, and both flatly denied the “Erika’s Lighthouse” curriculum had been removed.

They also denied telling Cromer the Mental Health Association’s services were no longer allowed in the schools.

“Erika’s Lighthouse is definitely scheduled,” Ange said. “We haven’t yet informed the teachers when it will take place, but we’re hoping for some time in the first semester, possibly in October.”

As for the Mental Health Association’s counselors, she added, “We certainly want to continue to work with them.”

Cromer sounded surprised and somewhat amused when I shared the contents of my interview with Ange and Seymour, saying, “That’s interesting. … Maybe your phone call got their attention. Obviously, something happened.”

He said he wasn’t at all surprised, however, when he was told the district could commit to the association’s mental-health curriculum, despite seeing significant increases in the need and demand for the association’s services the past couple of years.

That’s because Cromer also sees what’s happening in Tallahassee, where the Florida Department of Education continues to impose its will on school districts that previously were governed mostly by locally elected officials.

He cited a newly adopted model for mental-health care in the state’s public schools – a program fully endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, who promoted the change in strategy in March.

“We are rejecting the stigma-laden term ‘mental health’ and replacing it with ‘resiliency,’” Casey DeSantis said. “We have an obligation to teach and to empower our students to learn how to persevere and how to overcome life’s inevitable challenges.”

A statement released by the governor’s office identified new standards for addressing mental health issues, a list that included grit, perseverance, personal responsibility, critical thinking, problem solving and honesty.

For those who don’t know: At the start of the 2019-20 school year, the Florida Board of Education began requiring school districts to add five hours of mental health instruction for students in grades 6 through 12.

Here, the “Erika’s Lighthouse” mental-health curriculum is presented in science and social studies classes, Ange said, adding that students in the grades 10 through 12 are offered other related programs.

Starting with the current school year, however, districts must incorporate a shift to the new resiliency model.

Does that mean the “Erika’s Lighthouse” curriculum must be condensed to accommodate the state’s new requirements? Might it eventually be phased out?

Ange said the state requires mental-health education in public schools and that both models will be presented to students this year. But she was quick to add that the district hadn’t yet received detailed guidance as to what the new resiliency curriculum should include.

“What we’ve gotten from the state has been kind of vague,” Ange said.

Also vague is how the state’s new resiliency model helps kids who are already in crisis or teetering – suffering from the effects of depression, struggling with anxiety or even contemplating suicide.

Do we simply tell them to toughen up? Rub dirt on their psyches? Figure it out themselves?

“We saw this coming last year,” Cromer said, referring to the state’s move toward the resiliency model. “What we’re hearing is that the shift to the resiliency program will not include the Erika’s Lighthouse curriculum.”

Cromer is concerned that mental health care in Florida is being politicized.

“Two years ago, we had more students ask for one-on-one crisis intervention than at any other time that we’ve been doing this,” he said. “Then the Parental Rights Bill became law, requiring parents immediately be notified if their child asked for help, and we had a 50 percent reduction in the number of students we were able to talk to.

“Even though students were saying, ‘I’m in crisis. I need to talk to someone,’ parents said no.”

Fortunately, Cromer said, Florida law allows kids ages 13 and up to seek up to three counseling sessions, without parental consent, from other providers outside the school district.

Help is available, but it should also be available in schools, where children spend so much of their time learning and socializing. Our district leaders must refuse to be bullied into phasing out the Erika’s Lighthouse curriculum.

Statistics compiled by the school district revealed an alarming spike in the number of students who self-reported having mental-health difficulties – from 1,168 in 2021-22 to 3,146 in 2022-23.

They’re in line with similarly troubling numbers across America, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, resulting in the loss of more than 7,000 lives annually.

Clearly, Cromer isn’t exaggerating when he says the “Erika’s Lighthouse” curriculum saves lives.

“We are seeing more kids, and especially adolescents, than ever before,” he said. “And we’re seeing an increase in the severity and acuity of symptoms.”

To be sure, our school district leaders aren’t turning a blind eye to the seriousness of the problem. Once again, though, the state has put them in a tough spot.

“There were a lot of unknowns over the summer, even before I got here, about what the state was going to do,” Ange said. “The state isn’t endorsing one particular mental-health curriculum. It’s up to each district to come up with the program that meets the state’s requirements.

“When I spoke with Dr. Cromer and his team, I told them we needed to get clarification on what type of approval was required for us to use the Erika’s Lighthouse curriculum,” she added. “I checked with the School Board attorney (two weeks ago), and we’re approved.”

That’s good news for the kids in our school district – but Cromer shouldn’t have heard it from me first.

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