On Monday, July 20, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-6) unveiled a series of bills intended to enhance mental health services and resources available to New Jersey’s public school students. Among other things, it aims to ensure that there is an adequate supply of trained mental health professionals in schools and that students are receiving the interventions and supports they need. 

“The New Jersey School Boards Association commends Assemblyman Greenwald for spearheading this legislative initiative to expand mental health services in the public schools,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, New Jersey School Boards Association executive director. “We look forward to reviewing the proposals.” 

According to a statement from Greenwald, one ifive students nationwide were already struggling with a mental health condition before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a public health emergency and a shutdown of the state, including all schools. Approximately 75% of elementary, middle and high school students receive mental health care in a school setting. Without in-person schooling, many students may not have access to that care elsewhere.  

“Social isolation during the pandemic, particularly while stay-at-home orders were in place, resulted in too many students battling mental health issues including depression and anxiety,” said Greenwald in a statement released Monday. “A study reveals students’ mental health struggles will continue even after we begin the return to normalcy. Educators and other school employees are uniquely qualified to begin early intervention efforts because they are equipped to identify early signs of mental health issues.” 

The five-bill package aimed at improving mental health supports consists of the following measures: 

  • A-4433 establishes a grant program to encourage school districts to partner with institutions of higher education in training school-based mental health services providers. The program is intended to assist school districts in the training of school-based mental health services providers to expand the pipeline of high-quality, trained providers and address the shortages of mental health professionals in school districts. 
  • A-4434 creates a “Student Wellness Grant Program” within the New Jersey Department of Education to provide grants that support school districts in implementing school-based programs and practices that promote mental wellness, social and emotional learning, and student resilience. 
  • A-4435 requires the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) to give priority to certain school districts with student mental health counseling centers in awarding grants under the School Based Youth Services Program (SBYSP).  The SBYSP is currently administered by the Office of School-Linked Services within the Division of Family and Community Partnerships of DCF.  The program is located within host schools and coordinates with existing resources in the community. 
  • A-4436 establishes a “Student Mental Health Task Force” to identify and study resources available to schools and parents to address student mental health needs.  Under the bill, the New Jersey School Boards Association would have a representative on the task force. 
  • A-4437 permits student assistance coordinatorsschool psychologists and other mental health professionals working in school districts to refer or help facilitate referral of students to private professional counselors. Parental consent will be required if student is not legally permitted to give consent to mental health services on their own. 

“This bill package is necessary and urgent,” said Greenwald. “When our schools do reopen for in-person learning, we need to be able to provide counseling, and we must have the ability to connect students with mental health concerns to effective community resources and appropriate counseling. It is paramount that we assist our schools in better understanding which community resources are available in order to better help our students.” 

The legislation reflects many of the recommendations in NJSBA’s October 2019 report, Building a Foundation for Hope. That year-long research project emphasized the importance of school-based programs, collaboration with higher education and community organizations, parental involvement, and professional development to build educators’ awareness of their role in addressing student mental health and social-emotional learning.  

 “The pandemic and school closures have placed additional stress on many students and their families,” said Feinsod. “The subject of these proposals is indeed timely and relevant to our students’ well-being.” 

The bills may now be posted for committee consideration. The NJSBA will continue to monitor and report on their progress.