Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) plans to introduce a bill this week to increase transparency around school curriculum in New Jersey. (Photo by Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
Amy Kennedy received a call this week that a former student of hers had died after a drug overdose.
The funeral will be the third in the past six months for students she taught while she was a public school teacher, Kennedy said Monday as she urged lawmakers to take immediate steps to address the current mental health crisis.
“There is no time to wait. We can’t wait until next September. We can’t wait until May, when it’s Mental Health Month,” said Kennedy, education director of the Kennedy Forum and a member of the national board for Mental Health America.
Kennedy was among the experts who spoke to the Senate Education Committee Monday, pleading with them to approve more funding for school mental health programs, attract more child psychiatrists to the state, and clarify the responsibilities of school counselors.
School administrators pointed to the social isolation of the pandemic as a major contributor to the significant mental health challenges they’ve witnessed. Two years away from school took away daily face-to-face connection, social activities like sports and clubs, and safe places for kids struggling at home.
Dr. Ramon Solhkhah said the pandemic exacerbated already concerning statistics about mental health in children and teens. One in five teenagers lives with several mental health issues, and suicide is the second leading cause of death, he said, citing pressures from social media, cyberbullying, and now, the pandemic.
Solhkhah, a psychiatrist, argued the state needs to increase funding for mental health programs by as much as $70 million. Additional funding would help identify disorders early and bring down rates of suicide attempts and substance abuse, he said.
“I always say if this were one of my children who needed help, I would not have put them into this system,” said Kennedy, who has five children attending Brigantine public schools.
Kennedy noted school nurses screen students for physical issues like scoliosis often, but “we’ve ignored their brains,” leading to trouble with anxiety and poor decision-making skills.
The role of school counselors needs to be redefined, according to Jessica Smedley, president of the New Jersey School Counselor Association.
Smedley called counselors the “frontline mental health practitioners in schools,” but she noted there are no current state standards, so it’s up to each district to decide the role their counselors play.
She added many school districts don’t have even one counselor, and many of those that do have ratios higher than the recommended ratio of 50 students to one counselor. The state Department of Education reports some schools have ratios as high as 400 students to one counselor.
Christine Beyer, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, said there’s an ongoing “parallel pandemic.” The state’s mental health mobile unit received over 14,000 calls in February, and she expects that number to increase in March, she said.
Last year, the unit was dispatched nearly 29,000 times — the highest since its inception.
Beyer called on the state to increase funding to DCF programs, as well as to hospitals, schools, and crisis intervention programs. The increase in families taking advantage of mental health services is “reflective of the increasing number of distressing situations that youth across the state are in,” she said.
Solhkhah said people who seek help outside of school can wait days to be placed into behavioral health facilities. In 2018, just 324 child and adolescent psychiatrists were practicing in the entire state, with none in Warren and Cumberland counties, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill last year creating the Mental Health Screening in Schools Grant program under the Department of Education. The program provides funding to school districts to implement depression screening programs.
Witnesses Monday highlighted critical parts of Murphy’s recently proposed budget for fiscal year 2023. The plan proposes an increase for Medicaid rates for child outpatient mental health services — bringing them to the same rate as adult psychiatry — which would attract more doctors to New Jersey, Beyer said.
For Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Middlesex), chair of the committee, the hearing was personal.
“As someone who has struggled with depression my whole life, if I had early intervention, I think it would’ve helped me late in life,” he said.
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