Murphy’s New Proposal to Treat Mental Illness in NJ Schools is Drawing Controversy

The Murphy administration has proposed a state-wide initiative to address the increased rates of sadness and anxiety among children, which they attribute in part to the epidemic, by focusing on students’ mental health in the classroom and referring those who need it to community resources.

A well-liked youth services program that has been running in 90 New Jersey school districts since 1988 will be shut down in June as part of the state’s plan to roll out the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Network. Those who fought so hard to keep this program intact when the administration suggested reducing its funding two years ago are now mobilizing recent program graduates and politicians to do the same.

They argue it has saved lives and so should coexist with anything the Murphy government offers.

The new network would be managed by the Department of Children and Families, whose commissioner, Christine Norbut Beyer, believes New Jersey can do better. Only approximately 2% of the whole 1.3 million student body is being served by the current school-based program, she noted.

Norbut Beyer believes that a statewide strategy could reach every kid if the $30 million currently spent on the restricted school-based program were instead utilized to finance school assemblies, seminars, mentorship programs, and referrals to counseling off-site for the children most in need of aid.

“New Jersey, like the rest of the nation, is still reeling from the trauma created by the COVID-19 outbreak, and emotional and behavioral difficulties that may have been there previously have been amplified substantially,” Beyer said.

“More than one-third of students expressed feelings of chronic melancholy and hopelessness,” the US Surgeon General observed, and a recent CDC investigation found that about one-quarter of young adults in the US have sought treatment for mental health difficulties due to the pandemic. There has been a surge in the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts. The NJ4S proposal provides the necessary fresh resources and approaches to address the current predicament.

For an estimated $48 million, the network may be up and running for the 2023–24 academic year. There would be 15 nodes, each serving several counties. The agency estimates that each hub will need around $3.2 million to fund the salaries of its director, assistant director, support personnel, and mental health professionals. According to the idea, the hub would get guidance on the types of services it should provide from a group composed of children, parents, school officials, community leaders, and social service representatives.

The centers would provide three different intervention tiers. For students’ emotional health and to reduce disruptive behaviors like bullying, Tier 1 would provide resources for school assemblies and seminars. Students classified as “at risk” for behavioral or mental health disorders would be sent to Tier 2 programs, which would include “early identification and intensive preventative treatments” like mentorship or small group sessions. Students in need of an evaluation and referral would be linked with outside counseling services through Tier 3.

To accommodate the vast range of New Jersey’s varied adolescents, the network would “ensure that services are evidence-based, culturally competent, and offered in a number of venues, both in schools and in communities, to suit their identities, preferences, and needs,” as stated in the proposal.

Current school-based assistance programs would terminate in June 2023, when the proposal assumes the current school year would have concluded.

Proponents of the decades-old school-based program are preparing for a fight, this time with the support of legislators as they did in 2020.

Murphy's New Proposal to Treat Mental Illness in NJ Schools is Drawing Controversy

Monmouth County Democrat Vin Gopal said he agreed with Senator Beyer’s call for universal access to mental health services in schools. He has requested that the commissioner maintain the current status quo until the hubs are completely integrated, at which point the state can decide which initiatives are most beneficial and sustain them.

Gopal said he had requested more financing for the “high-performing programs for a few years till there is 100% confidence on the performance of the hubs so no kids are left behind in the process and no gaps develop in between.”

Jason Butkowski, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families, acknowledged that Norbut Beyer met with Gopal “and appreciated his ideas.”

According to Butkowski, “the agency is open to receive comments from lawmakers, local leaders, school administrators, and parents regarding this novel concept”

Five Republican legislators sent a note to the commissioner last week expressing support for maintaining the current 90 programs.

The Republicans from Ocean County (Senators Robert Singer and James Holzapfel and Assemblymen Sean T. Kean, Gregory McGuckin, John Catalano, and Edward Thomson) wrote a letter on September 30 calling School Based Youth Services “a vital program that serves tens of thousands of students across the state” with services like “mental health counseling, employment counseling, substance abuse education and prevention…and pregnancy prevention.”

According to the letter, its signatories “will not support eliminating the funds for (the program) in the FY 2024 state budget and will urge our colleagues to adopt the same approach.”

Director of Pinelands Regional High School’s School-Based Youth Services Janel Gonzales and her team of six has built a strong reputation for helping local youth. Like the rest of us, she wonders why innovative ideas like hers can’t be sustained.

School-Based is unique because “we are in a safe position for kids and families,” as Gonzales put it. There are no financial or transportation restrictions. There is no need to dial a central location or dispatcher in the event of a kid emergency. It happens instantly. Connections of significance are made constantly.

In his own words, Gonzales argued that “other schools are deserving” more resources for their students. However, “it is not fair and it is not right to just eliminate these programs that have benefited these communities up to this point.”

The Division of Child Protection and Permanency and the Children’s System of Care are both under the purview of the Department of Children and Families. The latter is a Medicaid-funded, managed care network for mental health treatments for children.

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