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, a bill sponsored by Assembly Democrats Louis Greenwald, Pamela Lampitt, and Raj Mukherji was signed into law on Tuesday.
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.
“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). “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 law (formerly bill A-4434) will increase financial support for mental health programs in school districts throughout the State by establishing the Student Wellness Grant Program.
“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.”
Grants awarded through the Student Wellness Grant Program can be used to support school districts in the provision of school-based mental health clinics or workshops for students and families; the implementation and coordination of policies, practices and programs that support the mental, emotional and social needs of students; the provision of on-site mental health services for students in need of short-term counseling or crisis intervention; and the referral of students in-need of long-term therapeutic counseling or mental health intervention with available community resources.
“Early diagnosis and access to treatment can make a meaningful difference in the development of children with mental health issues,” said 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.”