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Legislator: New Jersey must get mental health services right or teens will suffer | Opinion


Senator Vin Gopal | October 28, 2022 | NJ Star-Ledger |


Students in New Jersey and nationwide are struggling with mental health issues at levels a recent report described as “unprecedented.” In an effort to help these students, we’re seeing a widespread acknowledgment that providing New Jersey students with access to quality mental health services, related behavioral health care counseling and other preventative programs is more important than ever.

In the Senate Education Committee, student mental health has been an ongoing priority. Through the work we’ve done on the committee, it’s become clear that while we currently have some tremendous resources in New Jersey, huge sections of the state lack reliable access to student mental health services.

The recent announcement that starting in the 2023-2024 school year the state will shift funding away from the School Based Youth Services Program and use it to fund a new regional program, called the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services Network, or NJ4S, has raised significant concerns among school officials and mental health providers across the state.

Considering the timeline for this transition, and the urgent need for student mental health services throughout the state, concerns about the rollout of the new network disrupting care being provided through current programs are valid. The current program has proven effective for many students, and building out the new one could take time. Now more than ever, it’s crucial we maintain continuity for students who are receiving quality care.

That said, it is important we also acknowledge the limits of our existing programs. The current youth based program currently services only 3% of New Jersey students. Given the scope of our state’s student mental health crisis, creating a broader, more comprehensive network is essential.

This should not be an either/or consideration.

The Department of Children and Families is spot on that we need to reach a statewide solution so we know exactly what is happening in our 584 public school districts. The current program is in only 90 out of 584 districts. The new program would help New Jersey significantly expand student access to mental health services and collect vital data on the effectiveness of, and demand for, those services. Once it’s fully operational, the network could prove invaluable. But it doesn’t have to come at the expense of successful programs that are already in place.

National research indicates that one in five teenagers lives with severe mental health issues and that youth suicide, which has been on the rise for the past decade, is now the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds.

We have to get this right. This is the time to find ways to work together, with ideas from advocates, mental health professionals, school districts, the administration and the Legislature, to grow mental health services in our schools and to make them universal across New Jersey.

In short, we need to be looking toward the future and build a statewide network that serves all 584 of New Jersey’s school districts, while in the interim making absolutely certain that all existing programs that have been such a lifeline for students and their families over the last several years remain in place. We cannot allow even one more student to fall between the cracks.


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