In an effort to address an alarming rise of teen depression and suicide, especially during a time when the country is facing more mental health issues than ever before due to COVID-19, Assembly Democrats Herb Conaway, M.D., Pamela Lampitt and Carol Murphy have sponsored a bill to mandate annual depression screenings for certain students in public schools. The Assembly Health Committee advanced the legislation on Tuesday.
The bill (A-970) would require New Jersey public schools to administer annual depression screenings for students in grades 7 through 12, with a valid screening tool that helps identify which students may be dealing with depression.
“If a young person is experiencing feelings of sadness and hopelessness caused by depression, those feelings won’t simply go away. Depression is an illness, not a phase,” said Conaway (D-Burlington). “With the added pressures of a worldwide pandemic exacerbating the existing challenges of adolescence, teens are undeniably navigating a complex world. We have to be able to determine which teenagers are depressed so we can treat them before it is too late.”
The bill follows updated recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics that say adolescents 12 and up should be screened annually for depression. Before conducting the screening, school districts would have to obtain written consent from parents at the start of the school year.
The screening would have to be conducted in a way that allows for real-time evaluation of the results and intervention by a licensed mental health professional that same day. If the screening tool indicates a particular student may be experiencing depression, their parent or guardian would be notified and encouraged to share the results with a primary care physician for further evaluation and diagnosis.
“It’s tough being a kid. It’s even tougher if you’re struggling with depression in a world that has drastically changed in the span of just a few months due to a deadly public health crisis,” said Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington). “These screenings can help identify warning signs that might go unchecked, and allow parents to take appropriate next steps to make sure their children get the help they need during a difficult time.”
Various reports over the past several years have indicated the increasing number of children and teens struggling with depression. By the time they reach adulthood, one in five young people will have experienced depression. Between 2007 and 2015, the number of adolescents hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts doubled.
Yet only about 50 percent of adolescents with depression are actually diagnosed with it while even fewer receive the help they need.
“We have heard the news stories about young people who have taken their own lives because their anguish was so great they felt there was no other way out,” said Murphy (D-Burlington). “These tragic losses didn’t need to – and never should have – happened. We must be more proactive so that we are not simply reacting to tragedies, but preventing them before they take place. This is even more true now with the difficulties this pandemic has presented our kids.”
In addition, relevant state departments would collect and analyze non-identifying data from the screening process to identify statewide trends concerning teenage depression. The data would be used to help develop school and community-based initiatives to address teen depression.
The bill will now head to the Assembly Speaker for further evaluation.