Democrat-Sponsored Bills Aimed to Improve Mental Health Services in K-12 Schools Now Law

In an effort to better address the mental health needs of K-12 students across New Jersey, particularly as students experience unprecedented stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, two bills were signed into law Tuesday. Assembly Democrats Louis Greenwald, Raj Mukherji, Pamela Lampitt, Anthony Verrelli and Shanique Speight are among the bills’ sponsors.

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 and 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.

“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 both bills. “Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was enormous strain and stress on our students. Now, the increased social isolation from the pandemic 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. These laws 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 laws will increase financial support for mental health programs in school districts throughout the State. This includes establishing a grant program for school-based providers to create and grow student mental health programs.

“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 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,” said 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.”

The bills signed into law are as follows:

A-4433

Greenwald/Mukherji/

Lampitt

Creates grant program to encourage school districts to partner with institutions of higher education in training school-based mental health services providers.
A-4435

Verrelli/Greenwald/

Speight/Lampitt

Requires DCF to give priority to certain applicants with student mental health counseling centers in awarding contracts to provide School-Linked Services.