A pair of recently enacted bills aim to help New Jersey better address the mental health needs of K-12 students across the state.
Signed into effect last month by Gov. Phil Murphy, A-4433/S-2715 and A-4435/S-2717 will increase financial resources for districts to develop and grow school-based mental health programs.
Under A-4433/S-2715, the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE), in conjunction with the Department of Children and Families (DCF), will establish a competitive grant program to help districts select and train mental health providers as a way to address the shortage of school-based mental health professionals.
Mental Health Partnerships
The program would encourage districts to partner with colleges to develop skilled school-based professionals.
According to a fiscal impact statement from the Office of Legislative Services, the bill allocates $500,000 for the program. It also includes a provision requiring the DOE to annually apply for and use any federal grant funds or federal aid for the program prior to using state money.
Youth Services Program Grants
Under A-4435/S-2717, the DCF will be required to give priority to certain districts with student mental health counseling centers in awarding grants under the School Based Youth Services Program (SBYSP).
The measures come as students continue to grapple with the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
After the public health crisis forced schools to go remote, concerns have grown about the effect virtual learning has had on learning and socialization.
Corrado: Mental Health Resources Are ‘Imperative’
State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-40), a primary sponsor of both bills, said, “Due to the COVID pandemic, school-age children are especially at risk for emotional and psychological issues. Students who have been quarantined away from friends and blocked from school and social activities can feel isolated and depressed.”
“Now more than ever, we must ensure that our schools have enough skilled professionals capable of identifying students who are in crisis and in need of mental health services. It is imperative that schools have adequate help in place when it is needed and can do the most good,” Corrado stated.
Even prior to the pandemic, many districts lacked qualified faculty and support links to resources to address mental health in schools.
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-6), a primary sponsor of the bills, said, “An estimated 20% 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.”
The newly-signed laws, he said, “will allow us to hit the ground running and help students succeed as we come out of the pandemic.”
Since children spend so much of their time in the classroom, legislators believe schools are in unique positions to identify mental health challenges and help students.
‘A Step We Need To Take’
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-33), one of A-4433’s sponsors, said, “Early diagnosis and access to treatment can make a meaningful difference in the development of children with mental health issues.”
“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,” he added.
Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-29) said more fully integrating social services into schools could also present an opportunity to reach at-risk youth and troubled teens.
“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,” she said.