(TRENTON) – The Assembly Education Committee on Monday approved a package of five bills with the goal of better addressing the mental health needs of K-12 students across New Jersey, particularly as students experience unprecedented isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2016, half of children ages 6 through 18 in the U.S with a mental health disorder received treatment or counseling. Since youth spend much of their time in school, counselors are in a unique position to identify mental health challenges and serve students where they are. However, some schools lack qualified faculty, support links to community services to effectively bridge the gap in mental health care.
Recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated barriers to quality mental health care in schools, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald has spearheaded efforts to expand and improve mental health services in our education system in preparation for when students return to fully in-person instruction.
“An estimated 20 percent of school-aged children struggle with mental health issues that may impact their school performance and social growth. With so many students in need of services, there’s concern that there may not be enough counselors, training, and resources to give students the support they need. Now, the COVID-19 public health crisis has spurred another emergency – a mental health crisis,” said Greenwald (D-Camden, Burlington), who sponsors each of the measures in the bill package. “Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was enormous strain and stress on our students. With many children now learning fully remotely, the increased social isolation can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. Schools play a key part in our students’ development, and we need them to address our youth’s emotional health and wellness when they return to traditional in-person instruction. This bill package will allow us to hit the ground running and help students succeed as we come out of the pandemic.”
Aiming to ensure every student with a mental health condition has access to quality school-based mental health care in New Jersey, the legislative package aims to evaluate the current system, identify areas for improvement and increase financial support for mental health programs. This includes establishing grant programs for school-based providers to create and grow student mental health programs.
Assembly Democrats Raj Mukherji, Pamela Lampitt, Anthony Verrelli, Shanique Speight, Gabriela Mosquera and Carol Murphy are among the bills’ sponsors.
“Early diagnosis and access to treatment can make a meaningful difference in the development of children with mental health issues,” Mukherji (D-Hudson). “Schools can play a significant role in identifying and responding to the mental health needs of a student, but with increasing caseloads and limited access to community services, schools-based providers often face enormous barriers. It’s time we put tools in place to expand access to these life-changing services.”
“School psychologists and counselors are the first line of defense in assessing student wellness,” said Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington). “Increasing support and training for school-based mental health service providers will ensure we reach more students who could benefit from services.”
The legislation also aims to respond to shortages of mental health professionals in school districts; create wellness programs to support social and emotional learning; prioritize resources for districts with the highest need for mental health services; establish a task force to evaluate mental health resources available in schools in each region of the state, and allow school psychologists or assistance coordinators to refer students to professional counselors.
“The diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions in children often begin in school, but it likely won’t end there,” said Verrelli (D-Mercer, Hunterdon). “Building a bridge between school psychologists and outside professional counselors will streamline the delivery of mental health services and ensure our children receive the care they need in and out of the classroom.”
“To reach at-risk youth and troubled adolescents, we must fully integrate social services into our school communities,” Speight (D-Essex). “Anything we can do to expand these resources for young people with complex behavioral, emotional, and mental health needs is a step we need to take.”
“Students who struggle with depression, anxiety, ADHD and other mental health issues may have trouble getting through the school day while balancing their condition,” Mosquera (D-Camden, Gloucester). “The good news is that with the right support, these children can thrive in school and learn to manage their mental health, building skills they will carry with them throughout their lives. It’s up to us to make sure schools have enough resources to guide our students’ success.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated underlying challenges in supporting students who need mental health services,” said Murphy (D-Burlington). “Parents and caregivers may not be able to recognize signs of emotional distress that a professional would and may not know how to support their child through these challenging times. There’s never been a better time to take account of our school-based mental health system and find ways to better serve our children.”
The bill package includes the following legislation:
Creates grant program to encourage school districts to partner with institutions of higher education in training school-based mental health services providers.
Establishes Student Wellness Grant Program in DOE.
Requires DCF to give priority to certain school districts with student mental health counseling centers in awarding grants under School Based Youth Services Program.
Establishes “Student Mental Health Task Force” to study resources available to schools and parents to address student mental health needs.
Permits certain mental health professionals working in school districts to refer or help facilitate referral of students to private professional counselors.
The measures now go to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.