Dianea Kohl has been saying the same things for years. Now, people might be starting to listen.
Kohl, a long-time marriage and family therapist, has been trying to institute a Healthy Relationships elective course into Ithaca City School District classrooms since the early 1990s. She believes the lessons the course would teach about growing healthy romantic, platonic, or familial relationships to be crucial to beneficial navigation of life today.
Of course, teaching a course with this type of content requires vulnerability from several involved parties: the students to effectively learn the material, the teachers to correctly teach it, the schools to allow it, etc. That can be a tough bridge to cross for some, Kohl acknowledged.
“The root cause, I think, is fear of being vulnerable,” Kohl said. “Basic things like identifying what you feel, people can’t even do that. Being able to identify it and communicate that, people just don’t know. [...] You could make it into a four-year course, like English. There’s so much to learn.”
While the course might seem ideal for a place like Ithaca, which places a premium on things like healthy relationships that other places might dismiss out of hand, Kohl has had difficulty generating interest. That changed recently, though, when she received a letter of support from a powerful ally, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick. He who penned a letter to Kohl in May in support for the implementation of the class, touting its value as a preventative tool to potentially protect from addiction and violence through self-care.
“With so many school and police shootings, high rates of domestic violence, divorce, and suicide, it is more urgent than ever to educate our students in healthy loving relationship skills, including parenting skills,” the lettter states. “We all agree that parenting is one of the most important ‘jobs’ we could ever have. This includes the responsibility of fostering our future generations, creating love.”
Myrick goes on to recount the different research presented to him by Kohl that he believes supports the endorsement, particularly by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, which focuses on childhood trauma as a significant determinant in later-life development.
“I, as Mayor of Ithaca, support and encourage our superintendent, administrators, teachers, and parents to make it a priority to hire a teacher and offer a Healthy Relationships course as an elective in the Ithaca City School District,” the letter concludes.
Kohl has approached the school district several times over the years but has received varying levels of interest depending on who was in charge, whom she spoke to, and other factors. But she hasn’t given up yet, and thinks it would be a valuable addition to the roster of elective courses that the district offers. There have also been efforts statewide that may portend good fortune for Kohl’s efforts: in 2018, New York became the first state in the country to mandate mental health education courses be taught in schools around the state.
There have also been societal factors around town that make Kohl optimistic that her course will soon be accepted into the district, such as a greater awareness of the importance of mental health and self-care. Kohl also said that, anecdotally, other therapists around town that she speaks to regularly are far busier now than in the past, perhaps another sign that people are more comfortable with therapy, or more willing to admit they need it, than previously.
“Therapists are really overloaded now—I turn people away all the time,” she said. “It’s a really good sign that people are willing to get help [...] Each one of us is doing our bit, and this is my bit.”