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Conaway, Murphy & Singleton Stress Need for Depression Screenings for Young People to Combat Teen Depression & Suicide

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7th Legislative District Team Sponsoring Bill to Address Rise of Teen Depression & Suicide 

TRENTON – Noting the alarming rise in teen depression and suicide, Assemblyman Herb Conaway, Jr., M.D., Assemblywoman Carol Murphy and Senator Troy Singleton (all D-Burlington) on Thursday highlighted the need to screen young people for depression, and discussed how a bill they are sponsoring could help identify warning signs of depression so they could be addressed before it is too late.

Their bill, which was released today by the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee chaired by Conaway, would require depression screenings for public school students in grades 7-12.

Current law requires parents be notified of such screenings. Parents will have the opportunity to opt out if they so choose.

The bill follows a recent recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that young people 12 and up be screened annually for depression using a formal self-report screening tool.

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found the number of kids and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled from 2008 to 2015. The highest uptick was seen in teens aged 15 to 17; the second highest was among teens 12 to 14.

Only about 50 percent of adolescents with depression get diagnosed before reaching adulthood. And as many as 2 in 3 depressed teens don’t get the care that could help them.

“The data is startling,” said Conaway. “The worst part is that many young people are not diagnosed until they become adults, which means they have spent their formative years battling a disease that can be managed with proper diagnosis and intervention.”

“We have heard the news stories about kids who have taken their own lives because their anguish was so great they felt there was no other way out,” said Murphy. “We must be proactive, so that we are not reacting to tragedies that could have been prevented.”

“We need to realize that teen depression is not just a mental health problem, it is a public health problem,” said Singleton. “This legislation providing for annual school based depression screenings is a pre-emptive strike against teen depression. It allows us to identify the symptoms of depression in our children before it’s too late.”

The bill (A3926/S2835) would require public schools to administer annual depression screenings for students in grades 7 through 12. The screening would be administered by a qualified professional and consist of a brief screening tool. The bill would task the Commissioner of Health to select the screening tool to be utilized by each school district. The screenings would be conducted in a manner that ensures the privacy of the student during the screening process and the confidentiality of the results consistent with state and federal laws applicable to the confidentiality of student records.

“These screenings could help alert the adults in their lives of a potential problem so they can get it addressed before it grows and leads to tragic results,” he added.

Conaway is also sponsoring a bill (A-4248) to create a commission to study the effects of smart phone and social media usage on kids in school. Conaway cited a study that found that 48 percent of teens who spend five hours per day on an electronic device have at least one suicide risk factor, compared to 33 percent of teens who spend two hours a day on an electronic device.

The commission would look at the extent of smart phone and social media usage in public schools and its effects on the emotional and physical health of students, and would have to issue a final report with its findings and recommendations to the governor and the Legislature no later than one year after its organizational meeting.

“It is not surprising that the rise in depression among teenagers coincides with the emergence of smart phones,” said Conaway. “We need to better understand the effect of smart phones and social media on young people, so we can help prevent the repercussions on their mental health.”