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Conaway, Lampitt & Murphy Bill to Require Depression Screenings for Students Clears Assembly Panel

Measure Hopes to Address Alarming Rise in Teen Depression & Suicide

(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Herb Conaway, M.D., Jr., Pamela Lampitt and Carol Murphy to require annual depression screenings for certain public school students to address the rise of teen depression and suicide was released Thursday by an Assembly panel.

The bill, released by the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee, is part of a group of bills sponsored by Conaway focused on youth mental health. Conaway, who chairs the committee, and Murphy held a press conference earlier today to discuss the importance of this legislation.

“Teens today are navigating a very different world. The stressors that arise around puberty are now intensified by social media, which can be used to bully and make young people who are already susceptible to social pressure feel like they are not measuring up,” said Conaway.

“It’s tough being a kid. It’s even tougher if you’re struggling with depression in a world where reality is distorted by social media,” said Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington). “These screenings can help identify warning signs that might go unchecked and allow parents to take appropriate next steps.”

“We have heard the news stories about kids who have taken their own lives because their anguish was so great they felt there was no other way out,” said Murphy (D-Burlington). “We must be proactive, so that we are not reacting to tragedies that could have been prevented.”

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found the number of kids and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled from 2008 to 2015. The highest uptick was seen in teens aged 15 to 17; the second highest was among teens 12 to 14.

Only about 50 percent of adolescents with depression get diagnosed before reaching adulthood. And as many as 2 in 3 depressed teens don’t get the care that could help them.

“These feelings of sadness and hopelessness don’t simply go away. Depression is an illness, not a phase. Teens are notoriously moody. But we have to distinguish between typical teenage angst and actual depression so we can get to these children before it is too late,” said Conaway (D-Burlington).

The bill (A3926) would require public schools to administer annual depression screenings for students in grades 7 through 12. The screening would be administered by a qualified professional and consist of the Patient Health Questionnaire, or an equivalent depression screening tool, as determined by the commissioners of education and health.

Under the bill, a qualified professional means a school psychologist, school nurse, school counselor, student assistance coordinator, school social worker, or physician.

The bill follows a recent recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that young people 12 and up be screened annually for depression using a formal self-report screening tool.

The Commissioner of Health would select the screening tool to be utilized by each school district. The screenings would be conducted in a manner that ensures the privacy of the student during the screening process and the confidentiality of the results consistent with state and federal laws applicable to the confidentiality of student records.

Under the bill, the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Health (DOH) would have to establish standards on the procedures to be implemented to conduct the screenings and provide for other screening tools, including, but not limited to, a screening tool for anxiety.

A board of education must forward the data collected to DOE and DOH, provided that the data is aggregated and does not contain any identifying or confidential information with regard to any individual. Data collected by the departments would be used by the departments to identify statewide trends concerning teenage depression and to develop school and community based initiatives to address teenage depression.

A superintendent would have to notify the parent or guardian of a student whose screening for depression detects a suspected deviation from the recommended standard. The superintendent would have to inform the parent or guardian that the screening is not a diagnosis, and encourage the parent or guardian to share the screening results with the student’s primary care physician.