By Vin Gopal
Speakers at the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on teen suicide two weeks ago described a complicated, emotional problem that’s going to require multiple creative solution.
Throughout the hearing educators, healthcare professionals, counselors, students, and parents addressed the concerning increase in youth depression and suicides, often relating personal experiences involving family members and friends.
One Monmouth County school superintendent talked about his 17-year-old niece, who lived in a caring home with well-educated attentive parents, but died of an overdose, to illustrate the point that “mental health has no boundaries.”
Few have not been touched by the problem of teen suicide, whether through a friend or relative or classmate. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults in the US and the pandemic only increased the already concerning spike in teen depression and feelings of isolation. As Dr. Eric Alcera of Hackensack Meridian Health testified, mental health emergency room visits by young people have risen 49 percent since COVID. At the same time, New Jersey is experiencing a critical shortage of mental and behavioral health professionals. So much so that school counselor caseloads run about 500 students, where the standard is 250 students. A senior policy analyst with the NJ Association of Mental Health & Addiction Agencies testified that the groups she works with report 30 percent job vacancy rates for psychiatrists, social workers, residential care workers, and others.
Dr. Alcera, who is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the network medical director at Hackensack Meridian Behavioral Health, said mental health providers are “trying to meet a tsunami of needs. It will take an ‘all of the above’ strategy to build the child mental health capacity that is needed.”
We need to explore ways to encourage future mental health professionals to work in the state through tuition or tax credits or signing bonuses. We must help schools and nonprofit organizations find ways to ensure young people have access to the mental health services they need. As the legislature begins working on the governor’s budget, we will be working to make sure mental health is a top funding priority.
It was gratifying to see Governor Murphy include $100,000 for the SOURCE at Red Bank Regional High School and $250,000 for Covenant House in Asbury Park in his proposed budget address last week. The SOURCE provides school programs to support the mental health, well-being, and the educational success of students while Covenant House helps young people who are homeless.
We have a lot of work ahead. Hopefully, our colleagues in the state Legislature will support appropriations in the budget for schools and organizations like these to continue helping students and young people who are temporarily without housing find shelter and youth with special needs find the mental health services they need.
We are also hopeful that legislators will support a bill introduced last month to create the First Responders COVID-19 Supplemental Benefits Program to provide grants to first responders who experienced economic losses because they were unable to work for long periods due to job-related long Covid. The bill, which appropriates $20 million from the state General Fund for the program, has been referred to the Law and Public Safety Committees of both houses.
One final note of thanks to all of the LD11 towns that invited us to participate in St. Patrick’s Day events celebrating the rich culture and history of the Irish-American Community.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Senator Vin Gopal is chair of the Senate Education Committee. He represents residents of Asbury Park, Allenhurst, Colts Neck, Deal, Eatontown, Freehold, Freehold Township, Interlaken, Loch Arbor, Long Branch, Neptune City, Neptune Township, Ocean Township, Red Bank, Tinton Falls, Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury Township, and West Long Branch.