By Vin Gopal – The pandemic has traumatized many children and left them struggling with anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels, so significant the U.S. surgeon general has called it “a mental health pandemic for youth.”
Last month, while announcing $12 million in new funding for the New Jersey Pediatric Psychiatric Collaborative at Jersey Shore Medical Center, I thought of some of the strides we’ve made, such as securing $50 million in federal dollars in the 2023 state budget to strengthen resources like the mental health hotline, 9-8-8, connecting individuals to a network of trained crisis counselors. But we still have much work to do to make sure children and schools have access to the mental health resources they need.
That’s why the Senate Education Committee will continue to prioritize youth mental health. As Chair of the committee, it is gratifying to see its members working in a bipartisan effort to ensure access to mental and behavioral health resources for schools and families.
Last week, the committee passed several bills to support mental and behavioral health in our schools. One of those bills, S2416, requires Medicaid reimbursement for covered behavioral health services provided by schools and local education agencies to students who are eligible Medicaid beneficiaries. As the bill’s sponsor, it’s gratifying to see the committee unanimously support this measure that would cover services whether they are delivered in-person or through telehealth. This bill is in response to the reversal of a federal Medicaid policy, which prohibited Medicaid reimbursement for school health services if the same services were provided free of charge to the general student population.
The Education Committee also advanced bills that re-examine how schools evaluate and assess students with behavioral disabilities, including one of my bills co-sponsored with Senator Kristin Corrado, requiring parental notification when seclusion technique is used for students with disabilities. The bill, S3017, calls on the Department of Education to collect data on student disabilities regarding exclusion from school pending psychiatric clearance and utilization of restraints and seclusion.
The committee advanced legislation that would establish requirements concerning methods for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It would require the state to allow the use of a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention as well as the use of other alternative procedures when determining whether a child has a learning disability. The bill would focus on bringing methods New Jersey uses for identifying and evaluating students with learning disabilities up to date with changes to federal law and the relevant science and best practices.
Addressing the youth mental health crisis created by COVID-19 will remain a high priority for the Senate Education Committee in the weeks and months ahead. We will make student mental part of the discussion each time we meet because finding innovative ways to support good mental and behavioral health in our schools is crucial to providing a path for the state’s youth to be successful students and productive adults.