With the opioid abuse epidemic continuing in New Jersey and teen anxiety and suicide on the rise, a new report recommends Garden State schools take a more aggressive approach in screening and treating students who may be in crisis.

The report, Youth at Risk: Substance Misuse and Mental Health, recommends implementing a Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment program to stop student substance misuse and mental health issues early on before more serious problems develop.

Dan Meara, a policy expert and author of the report, said the SBIRT program calls for all students to fill out a brief questionnaire about mental health and substance use at school and “if the response exposes an emerging problem, a brief intervention is done. Counselors generally use motivational interviewing to help steer the student towards healthier behavior.”

He said in extreme instances, about 3% of the time, the problem may be serious enough to merit a referral to professional treatment.

Meara said the SBIRT program would be confidential, so students would feel safe talking about the issues they are facing.

Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, is sponsoring legislation, A4546, to require SBIRT to be implemented in all schools.

She said students must understand “it’s OK if something is going on and you need some help. But what isn’t OK is you sitting in silence. What isn’t OK is not seeking the help that you or a friend may need.”

She added, “We all have bad days and we never want to get caught up in the fact that we sit and we hide in silence, where it does grow into more of an epidemic of suicide.”

Maura Collinsgru, the health care program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, the organization that funded the report, said many of today’s students are battling substance abuse and mental health issues and the SBIRT program spells out “how schools can respond to help identify, support and redirect students who are struggling, and avoid more costly consequences.”

The report finds the SBIRT program could save up to seven times what the state spends on law enforcement and criminal justice costs.

New York, Pennsylvania, California, Florida and Texas have already implemented SBIRT programs.

A scaled-down SBIRT pilot program has already been launched at Bordentown High School, and school officials are hoping to expand it in the coming months.

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