With pandemic-related disruptions now in their 10th month without an end date in sight, state lawmakers last weeks endorsed two packages of bills addressing the mental health on students both in K-12 schools and college.

Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-Camden said there’s never been a greater need for this type of legislation, as a bad problem has been made worse by school closures and remote learning.

“While we are still learning about the ways in which the virus can affect our body, its impact on mental health is pushing us into another crisis, the mental health crisis, and it’s hitting our children the hardest,” Greenwald said.

The proposals endorsed by the Assembly Education Committee include:

  • A4433 Creates grant program to encourage school districts to partner with institutions of higher education in training school-based mental health services providers.
  • A4434 Establishes Student Wellness Grant Program in Department of Education.
  • A4435 Requires Department of Children and Families to give priority to certain school districts with student mental health counseling centers in awarding grants under School Based Youth Services Program.
  • A4436 Establishes "Student Mental Health Task Force" to study resources available to schools and parents to address student mental health needs.
  • A4437 Permits certain mental health professionals working in school districts to refer or help facilitate referral of students to private professional counselors.

“These measures will give our schools the tools and resources they need to be able to deal with the mounting issues stemming from COVID-19 when students return to school,” Greenwald said.

Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said the bills can help expand access and capacity.

“A great need still exists, and the need exceeds our current ability to provide effective services, especially in high-needs districts and areas,” Ginsburg said.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, said the pandemic has been agonizing for everyone, with the toll compounded for college students who may have been on campus and isolated from their families.

“There’s been an increase of mental health issues on campus this year, and as all you know, we started off in a pretty tough space with mental health,” Jasey said.

Anne Newman, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students of Rutgers University, said 36% of students reported symptoms of depression even before COVID-19 and that during the pandemic, 60% report that it’s harder to get the help they need.

“So while our students are experiencing worse outcomes, they also feel like they have less access to care,” Newman said.

The bills advanced by the Assembly Higher Education Committee include:

  • A2293 Requires institutions of higher education to implement suicide prevention programs and raise awareness of mental health services.
  • A3005 "Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act"; requires institutions of higher education to implement mental health programs and services.
  • A3007 Requires institutions of higher education to provide students with access to mental health care programs and services and to establish a hotline to provide information concerning the availability of those services.
  • A4174 Provides that institutions of higher education may permit final-year students in graduate degree programs for mental health care professions to graduate or be matched with residency or clinical programs early.
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Sean Quinn, whose daughter Aileen, a student at Stevens Institute of Technology, died of suicide in 2018, said he hopes bills like those can stem an epidemic that claims 1,200 undergraduate students every year.

“And that was pre-COVID,” Quinn said. “That was before we had this environment of isolation that we all are living through now.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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