It is July.  We just had a heat wave.  The yellow bus is not clogging intersections and Staples has yet to air its joy-crushing commercial signaling it is time to purchase school supplies.  For the New Jersey education system, however, there is no such thing as “summer break.” Not when more than 1.3 million students enrolled in the 2,500+ elementary, middle and high schools combined, are counting on its administrative leaders to fulfill their obligation to provide an adequate and appropriate education.  Policy makers have a decision to make for the 2019-2020 academic year; whether they will pass the bipartisan bill A.4446 and its Senate companion, S.3081 and send it to the Governor for enactment.    

In September of last year (2018), the Assembly introduced legislation requiring K-12 school districts to provide instruction on mental health, as part of their implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education.  The bills are sponsored by area legislators Senator Codey and Assemblyman McKeon.   “This legislation is vitally important as one in five children ages 13 to 18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness in their life. In any given classroom, there’s bound to be students living with a mental health issue, through lessons on mental health, we may help some youth feel less alone or be encouraged to seek the help they need,” stated Assemblyman John McKeon, D-27, Essex and Morris County.  

As a parent of a high schooler and middle schooler, I questioned what the bill would add or do differently from what schools are already offering. After all, New Jersey schools are ranked high in the nation with a per pupil expenditure close to $18,000 and teacher to student ratio of 1:12.  I assumed the resources and guidelines that the legislation calls for were already in place.  

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Further, we have been aware of an “Anxiety Epidemic” for some time now; its rate only increasing with each new generation, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  In 2017, Psychology Today reported on research findings showing that more students are arriving at school with SDR (Stress Dysregulation) and exhibiting difficulties in coping, making it hard to build a positive learning environment.  As one student put it: “It’s really hard to come to school after your parents screamed at each other all morning and open your book to do long division.” 

I had to ask my own kids: “Do you discuss mental health in class to learn about the warning signs of and how to cope with anxiety or depression?”  The answer was not so straight-forward. “Yes, if you take Psychology,” my high school senior shared. My middle schooler said health class covered topics like bullying, peer pressure and substance use, but they are not linked to mental hygiene.  I delved a little further. “If you or a friend were really struggling, would you know who to go to at school?” Again, I did not receive the concrete, action-oriented response any parent would hope to hear. “Not really,” was the reply. “What about your guidance counselor, I asked.” “They are there to advise you on college,” my senior added.  

The latest statistics tell us that 1 out of every 8 children develops an anxiety disorder, hindering their ability to relate to peers, get adequate sleep, and perform well in school.  Left untreated, an anxiety disorder can lead to depression and an overall sense of worthlessness, and often, suicide ideation or the unspeakable act of suicide. An estimated 45,000 Americans committed suicide last year, with 25 times that amount attempting to take their own lives.  The suicide rate has been steadily climbing, particularly among teens, reaching a national 50-year high. Oregon, with one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the nation, recently enacted a law allowing students to call in sick and take up to 5 days every 3-month period for mental health purposes or any other need as they see fit, as an excused absence.

So, what is New Jersey doing about this issue? The legislation calls for the Department of Education to provide resources and guidelines within 180 days of enactment.  Heavy on the problem and light on solution, the bill calls upon the State Board of Education to consult with mental health experts to “ensure the incorporation of instruction in mental health.” 

Community leaders and practitioners support furtherance of the policy.  Jamie Carvalho, is a Senior Clinician at Serenity at Summit, a Delphi Behavioral Health Group facility, providing mental health care to children from 8 years of age to adolescence, often including parents for family therapy.  School districts are the center’s biggest client. Students, after failing drug tests are referred to them for treatment. What is lost is that behind the substance use is often mental health issues. Carvalho shared that over the past two years, there has been a huge increase in vaping and other forms of self-medicating. “Social media is playing a bigger role. They are so connected through apps, but losing those verbal and social skills; eye contact for example.  Always wondering what they are missing out on. You can treat anxiety, depression, and other disorders appropriately once drugs are removed.”  Carvalho hopes that the discussions continue to remove the stigma of mental illness so that individuals are more inclined to seek help.  “More opportunities to recognize appropriate discussions; providing parents with more information on how to obtain services, is always helpful.”

The President of the Morris County Council of Education Associations had this to add: “A. 4446 is an important step in providing guidance for ALL students to recognize mental health issues.  I am not sure, though, how different it is from what most educators are already advocating. What I would like to see is a companion bill that provides resources for these students once a need has been identified.  Too many of our students are lacking the appropriate supports necessary to manage mental health issues.” 

You chose to read this article because it piqued your interest.  If you see the merits in this legislation, take your interest one step further by calling your representative to support A. 4446 and S.3081. 

To locate your legislator, visit: https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp 

Aura Dunn, a public policy expert, has lectured at the County College of Morris on federal, state, and local government.  Dunn also serves as Community Representative on the Morris County Mental Health Addictions Services Advisory Board