By Assemblyman Herb Conaway
As a doctor, I see many patients suffering with not only physical but psychological problems every day. The ongoing stigma around mental illness can cause people to suffer in silence, yet mental illness is a problem that impacts more than many may realize.
Unfortunately, young people are no exception, with more than 21 percent of teenagers and around 13 percent of children experiencing a severe mental disorder at some point during their lives. The mental illness seen in adults frequently has its beginning in childhood. Identifying and tackling mental illness early in a person’s life can greatly improve their chance for a happy and productive adulthood.
It’s difficult to comprehend just what the impact of mental illness is, but the consequences are certainly felt by those who struggle with it.
One report found that up to 70 percent of those in the juvenile justice system have diagnosable mental health disorders. Many of those young people were placed in the system because of their disorder, despite only having committed nonviolent offenses.
Children and teenagers with untreated mental illnesses can also struggle in school, with an increased likelihood of being absent, getting expelled, failing or dropping out altogether.
Most importantly, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youths aged 10-24, with 90 percent of those individuals having an underlying mental illness. Although New Jersey has some of the lowest rates of suicide in the nation, 283 of our residents in that age range still committed suicide between 2013 and 2015.
Even just one death is unacceptable because every single person matters.
This tragic loss of life might have been prevented if the young people battling suicidal thoughts had information and resources to help overcome them. It is quite literally vital for our youth to get the help they need when it comes to their mental health.
The first step in helping people is identifying exactly who needs the help.
Various organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have emphasized the importance of annually screening for depression in adolescents, which is why I have introduced legislation to require screening in schools for students between the seventh and twelfth grades.
Parents would be informed if the test found signs of depression in their child and would be given information on accessing various professional resources to address the problem.
Anonymous data collected via the screening tool would also be shared with the New Jersey Department of Education and Department of Health to help identify statewide trends and develop initiatives to address youth depression.
Similarly, I proposed another bill that would require hospitals to provide anonymous data to the New Jersey Poison Control Center regarding the number of attempted and completed suicides by minors. Monitoring the annual number of suicides would help New Jersey understand the scope of the problem and analyze whether existing mental health initiatives are making a difference.
However, preventative measures alone may not always be enough to keep someone from attempting suicide in the midst of a severe mental health crisis. In those instances, immediate support can make all the difference.
That is why another piece of legislation that I sponsor would require certain public schools and institutions of higher education to print the number of a suicide prevention hotline on the back of every student identification card. This would provide a daily reminder to students that helpful resources exist, and would guarantee that the information is readily available to them in their time of need.
These are not the only existing bills and certainly won’t be the last ones I propose to help address the mental health needs of New Jersey’s young people. I also serve as a member of the Professional Black caucus’ emergency task force to address the alarming rise of suicide among black youths.
This is undeniably an important topic that we must continue to discuss, as we seek ways to help the most vulnerable among us. In particular, teachers and educational institutions must have the resources to assist in identifying troubled youth, develop curricula on mental health education – including social and emotional learning – and improve access to mental health professionals within schools.
Mental illness can be a lifelong battle, but it is not one that must be fought alone.