Nevada Teen Partners With Policymakers to Champion Mental Health

Sept. 28, 2023
This post is a collaboration between Katie Broughton, legislative liaison for the Nevada Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Zeke Perez Jr., senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

When Robert Barsel, a 17-year-old high school senior living in Nevada, began leading peer support groups, he could not have imagined the impact it would have on him. Reflecting back on his experiences, Barsel remarked, “When I started support groups, I viewed it as ‘how am I going to help this one person in front of me so that they can make it through what I had a hard time getting through?’” Little did he know that his efforts would inform legislation and highlight the power of partnering with students in policymaking.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Barsel knew that his peers were going to need even more support than before. With in-person meetings out of the question, he began to build and distribute a comprehensive, easy-to-use mental health curriculum alongside professional therapists. Thus, Everyone Has Mental Health was born.  

After releasing the curriculum, Barsel was introduced to Nevada Senator Roberta Lange, and together they sponsored S.B. 313 to bring additional mental health curriculum into Nevada public schools. Senator Lange noted, “It was an honor to sponsor legislation with Robert. His experience and passion related to mental health education is astounding.”  

They met with Jhone Ebert, state superintendent of public instruction with the Nevada Department of Education, and explored how Nevada schools could support access to mental health resources. “Robert’s deep-rooted drive to remove barriers to mental health supports for students is truly exemplary, and his many achievements in this area are a testament to that. I sat alongside Robert as he presented his draft legislation, S.B. 313, at a legislative hearing and was awestruck by his expert delivery and thoughtful, informed responses,” Ebert told us. 

S.B. 313 sought to embed mental health education into Nevada’s schools in three ways. It required health standards to include information relating to mental health and social and emotional learning standards developed by the department of education. It would also require the completion of a course in mental health education to obtain a license to teach and would require completion of a course or professional development in mental health education to renew a teaching license for certain applicants. To provide teachers with ongoing support to address student mental health, school districts and charter schools would also be required to partner with certain entities to provide professional development training in mental health education. 

A focus on student mental and physical health among state policymakers nationwide has continued through 2023. At least 21 governors prioritized efforts to support student mental and physical health in their addresses and at least 166 bills were enacted related to health in education, with a specific focus on mental or behavioral health in 48 of those bills across 26 states.  

Similar to S.B. 313, some state legislation placed a focus on curriculum and mental health education. New Hampshire’s H.B. 505 (introduced) would add “comprehensive mental health education” to the state’s required health and physical education curriculum. Other states have approached mental health by determining students’ mental health needs (like Colorado’s enacted H.B. 23-1003, which provides for a mental health screening program grades six through 12) or by increasing access to services (like Illinois’ enacted S.B. 1709, which requires the Illinois Department of Human Resources to partner with the Illinois Board of Education to increase the provision of mental health care during school days).   

While S.B. 313 was not enacted during the 2023 legislative session, this effort shows how policymakers can learn from and partner with students on issues that impact them. For states working to determine the best ways to begin addressing student mental health in schools, Barsel offers a reminder: “The most important thing is going back to the absolute core of why this matters. I can truthfully say that none of this has worn me down because of how much I care about supporting kids and teenagers and their mental health. I would not have been able to do this if I didn’t have that focus on the front of my mind.” 

Author profile

Katie Broughton

Author profile

Zeke Perez Jr.

Zeke Perez Jr.

Assistant Policy Director at Education Commission of the States |

As an assistant policy director, Zeke tracks legislation related to statewide longitudinal data systems, school safety and postsecondary campus safety. He has been with Education Commission of the States since 2014. Zeke has a passion for local politics and enjoys following the varied policy approaches of city and state leaders.

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