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Greenwald: We Must Address NJ Students’ Mental Health to Enable a Better Future

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an enormous amount of stress and trauma not only for adults, but for our children as well. I couldn’t agree more with the recent opinion piece by Keita Franklin and Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber about the importance of mental health in our schools. Our kids need help, which is why I’ve introduced legislation in New Jersey to help bolster mental health resources in K-12 schools.

Prior to the start of the pandemic, millions of young people throughout the country were already experiencing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and various behavior problems.

With the turbulence of this past year and the uncertainty of the months ahead, many children no longer have access to the resources and stability they once relied on, such as counseling services, for their mental health.

Kids have been – and continue to be – taken in and out of the classroom, kept away from friends and extracurricular activities, exposed to social unrest and faced with the tragic loss of loved ones all due to COVID-19.

There is no doubt that many stressors of this past year will have a significant impact on the social-emotional development and mental well-being of our youth. If underlying mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic are not properly addressed, they can and will spiral out of control.

Undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems can lead to poor educational outcomes, prevent children from engaging in positive social interactions and tragically even lead to suicide. Although a study from June 2020 indicating increased levels of suicidal thoughts and plans only focused on adults, it would be foolish to assume young people are not also at an increased risk due to the pandemic.

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, I am hopeful students will be able to fully return to in-person schooling by the fall. As the location where children will again spend the majority of their time and have the greatest access to state resources, schools are the perfect place to provide mental health assistance.

The legislative package I have sponsored along with my colleagues in the General Assembly – with the support of a number of educational organizations – will improve mental health services in New Jersey’s K-12 schools.

As Executive Director Rich Bozza of the NJ Association of School Administrators explains, this legislation will “direct resources toward mental health support for students that have always been essential, but are even more critical now during the pandemic when so many young people are under enormous stress.”

One of the measures in the package will establish a Student Mental Health Task Force to study what resources are available to schools and parents that would help them address the mental health needs of students.

Several of the bills will supply grants to facilitate the provision of these services, such as a grant program to help districts train mental health professionals to serve in schools. Another measure will establish a Student Wellness Grant Program to give schools funding to implement policies and practices that promote mental well-being, offer health workshops, and provide short-term counseling or community referrals wherever appropriate.

In order to make those referrals possible, another bill will permit mental health professionals in schools to refer students to private counselors who can provide them with long-term support outside school walls.

Also included in the bill package is legislation that will both facilitate and incentivize districts to operate or host mental health counseling centers for students by prioritizing grants for districts with these centers.

Executive Director Elisabeth Ginsburg of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, in favor of this legislation, believes “nurturing our students – physically, intellectually and emotionally – is the mandate of all educators” and that “now, more than ever, our students need mental health services.” She calls the legislation a “much needed holistic approach to the challenges that confront us.”

I’m happy to have the support of many other educational organizations as well, including the NJ School Boards Association and NJ Principals and Supervisors Association. All of us understand that equipping our schools with the proper resources to provide mental health services will help ensure all our students have their mental health needs identified and addressed.

It is my hope that not only New Jersey, but every state in our country, will begin to implement key measures such as these to help children recover from this pandemic and cope with mental health challenges so we can begin ensuring a better, brighter future for them.


This op-ed was originally published in the Courier Post on February 23, 2021: