New Jersey State Legislators Coughlin & Gopal Propose Later School Start Time for NJ High Schools to Boost Teen Mental Health

New Jersey’s education system continues to rank best in the nation, but following two incredibly tough pandemic years the national picture for child mental health is worsening to the detriment of students and their educational outcomes.

Beginning the work of addressing this national youth mental health crisis, Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin and Senator Vin Gopal introduced legislation Thursday, which proposes to push statewide high school start times in New Jersey to no earlier than 8.30 a.m. beginning in the 2024-2025 school year.

“When students are well-rested and eat nutritious meals they’re better prepared to succeed in school,” said Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “Overwhelmingly the research and success stories out of other states’ school districts show that the benefits of later start times to students’ holistic well-being, in terms of both mental health and academic performance, easily outweigh the costs.”

Biological rhythms naturally induce teenagers to get to bed later, so when first period starts too early it puts more pressure on the sleep process and can worsen sleep quality. Deepening the link between sleep and mental health, a recent study found that teens starting school before 8:30 a.m. can be at particular risk of experiencing depression and anxiety.

“Sleep is fundamental to students’ mental and physical well-being,” said Senator Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth). “Ensuring students are getting enough rest is an important first step toward addressing the alarming rise in student mental health issues we’re seeing in New Jersey.”

“The New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (NJAAP) enthusiastically supports this bill sponsored by Speaker Coughlin and Senator Gopal, which encourages later school start times for high schools in New Jersey,” said Jeanne Craft, MD, FAAP, President of the New Jersey Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics. “Research demonstrates that later school start times for adolescents contribute to better academic performance, quality of life, mental health and school attendance.”

NJAAP’s Task Force on Adolescent Sleep & School Start Times, led by Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, has long advocated for later start times and has been working to educate about the importance of improved adolescent sleep and mental health.

“Nothing has proven school districts are capable of making rapid changes to adapt and optimize student learning more than the pandemic,” said Coughlin. “With clear evidence that a later start helps students, the opportunity to take action has arrived.”

This legislation ties into the broader push by the Assembly Speaker to transform how child mental health policy is understood and perceived in New Jersey, and to improve access, treatment, and integration of care across settings.