Alaska Legislature

Alaska Senate advances bill to add mental health classes to school curriculum

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate on Wednesday advanced legislation that would amend the curriculum used by public schools to include mental health education.

Senate Bill 24 requires that the State Board of Education write guidelines for school districts on how to develop age-appropriate mental health course materials. The cost of developing those guidelines was estimated to be $256,000.

The measure passed the Senate on a 15-4 vote. Four Republican senators voted no.

“As parents, our greatest wish is for our children to feel safe, supported, and able to reach their full potential,” Anchorage Democratic Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson said before Wednesday’s final vote. “But for too many Alaskan youth, this is increasingly — it’s not the case.”

Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, said the bill would make a simple statutory change: adding mental health into health classes.

“It’s the reality that we all live every day, every single day, is that good mental health is part of good physical health,” he said.

Multiple Alaska organizations involved in adolescent health wrote in support of SB 24. They said mental health education was needed for K-12 students because of high rates of youth suicide in Alaska, and because of an “alarming” increase in suicidal ideation among teenagers over the past decade.


Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a former teacher, voted against the bill but said addressing mental health issues was critical in schools. He argued that SB 24 would unfairly burden already overworked teachers.

“It is our school counselors who should be there and available to take care of students with mental health needs,” Bjorkman said, arguing that school funding should be increased appropriately to address a shortage of counselors.

The guidelines would be developed in conjunction with state agencies and national mental health organizations, among other groups. SB 24 specifies that parents would need to be notified two weeks before mental health classes are taught. State law allows parents to withdraw their kids from any class or program for any reason.

Gray-Jackson and Claman proposed a similar bill two years that stalled in the House when Claman was serving in that legislative chamber.

The prior version of the mental health bill failed to pass, partly because it was amended in the House to ban instruction on gender identity and to prohibit consultation with abortion providers to develop mental health education guidelines.

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes tried to amend SB 24 to limit mental health education to instruction on the warning signs of “suicide, self-harm, addiction and sociopathy.”

Hughes said that she heard from parents who were concerned “about what they might call ‘social engineering,’” referring to the abortion and gender identity amendments added by the House two years ago. Hughes’ amendment was rejected on a 14-5 vote.

SB 24 now heads to the House for its consideration.

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Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at