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Mental health in the classroom needs greater focus, Maine student says

A teen advocates for mental health awareness in local high schools. How her research has started a conversation for change.

PORTLAND (NEWS CENTER Maine) -- Maine students and teachers are getting ready to go back to school within the next few weeks. This new school year follows one that was highlighted by student voices capturing national attention, especially after the shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The discussion surrounding mental health was a large part of that, and a high school freshman in Portland tackled the topic for a school project. 15-year-old Della Huntley's research has lead to more than numerical findings, it started a conversation for change.

"I still don't have a crystal-clear idea. I'm not a health teacher or expert in mental health," Huntley said.

Huntley is going into her sophomore year at Baxter Academy in Portland.

"I wanted to learn about how mental illnesses effect how teens learn."

Mental health was the focus of a social studies project she did last school year. The popularity of the controversial show, "13 Reasons Why," and real conversations with her peers fueled her interest.

"It's not fun for anyone who has a mental illness to see it kind of shown in a way that is beautiful," she said.

She looked at the numbers. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20% of youth ages 13 to 18 live a with mental health condition and suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10 to 24.

Then, in a survey of her peers, Huntley found 80% said they know someone, a friend or family member, who has a mental illness.

"Of course there could be some overlap," she said. "Some people could be citing the same friends. But it was still such a large amount that I thought it was really important to kind of bring up and talk about even just within my school."

Some of her findings were published as a letter to the editor in a local paper, which caught our attention. But long before that, she already had the attention of her teachers who she says are talking with her about how to better address mental health in the classroom.

"It feels really good," she said. "Because I know there are places where I wouldn't be getting this much of an audience. And it is really good to hear that teachers are aware of the problem and receptive."

Maine's teachers are mandated to follow standards for health and physical education. Under those standards mental health is mentioned, but grouped with physical, social, and emotional health.

In recent weeks New York and Virginia became the first two states to adopt laws to mandate mental health education in public schools.

"I would like there to be more standards in place for elementary through high school in Maine that requires schools to talk about mental health with their students," Huntley said.

According to the Maine Department of Education, it takes about a year to update its standards. The Department is currently in the process of updating the standards for social studies, science and technology.

Baxter Academy, for example, offers three health-related classes and is looking to add a fourth. One is for general health education, another is for mindfulness, and one is dedicated entirely to yoga. The additional class will eventually cover global health.