There is a general misunderstanding of mental health that contributes to the stigma surrounding mental illness, and keeps people from coming forward when they need help.

That is as true with our individual institutions as it is with the world as a whole, and it can be changed only through education. The more people who know how to recognize and respond to mental illness – who know to treat it as an illness and not a fleeting feeling or phantom pain – the less likely someone around them is going to fall through the cracks.

And the stakes are never higher than in a school, where most children in a community spend the bulk of their time, and where social vulnerabilities are often most visible, and most easily exacerbated.

That’s why we support L.D. 1866, which would increase the number of people in schools trained in youth mental health first aid. The bill passed the Maine House and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. LePage. Legislators should override that veto when they return to the State House on Wednesday.

Youth mental health first aid is an eight-hour course where educators learn the risk factors and warning signs of a variety of mental health challenges, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, substance use disorder and eating disorders. They learn how to recognize and assess these illnesses, and point students toward the right interventions.

It is in part a suicide prevention tool. The suicide rate in Maine is higher than the national average, both for 10- to 24-year-olds and overall. In a 2015 survey, 15 percent of Maine high school students said they had seriously considered taking their own lives within the past year; 16 percent of middle-schoolers said they had considered it at some point.

The Legislature and Gov. LePage have made a lot of progress in this area in recent years. All school staff members are required to go through basic suicide awareness training. A 2013 bill signed by the governor also requires schools to each have two suicide awareness “gatekeepers” with advanced knowledge of the issue. All health instructors are required to be trained in youth mental health first aid, and all school departments are required to adopt suicide prevention protocols by the 2018-19 school year.

The first-aid bill builds on that important work, and reinforces to schools the need to have a staff ready to deal with these complex issues.

But it also goes beyond those previous actions by covering mental illness as a wider issue in the day-to-day lives of students. It pushes schools to attack the misperceptions around mental health and to create communities where mental health is treated like physical health – that is, addressed without judgment or stigma.

There is concern that L.D. 1866 is yet another unfunded mandate heaped upon schools. That concern is legitimate, as schools are asked not only to educate students, but also to feed them, counsel them and keep them healthy, without a commensurate increase in the amount of money they receive.

But that is not a reason for giving up on beneficial policy – it is an argument for giving our schools the resources they need.


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