Mental health part of plans to protect students

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | JUNE 6, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

Communities in New Jersey and nationwide are again focusing on the need to protect students, avert violence and help kids and families heal from the trauma of incidents like the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas.

New Jersey — which has among the nation’s strongest gun laws — had already taken steps to beef up school security, identify students who may pose a threat and ensure districts provide comprehensive mental health services. The state also created a $1 million grant fund to help schools develop depression-screening programs, starting this fall.

“We’ve always had children that experienced mental health issues, but not at the level and frequency that’s going on now. We have to treat it like we treat reading,” said Millville schools superintendent Tony Trongone, pointing to strategies such as intervention, ongoing support and parental engagement.

As part of his state budget proposal in early March, Gov. Phil Murphy also called for investing federal pandemic relief funds in a new school-based mental health effort to help students struggling with pandemic stress and learning loss. His office confirmed this has yet to happen but said Murphy is committed to working with lawmakers on the initiative.

In response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas — which killed 19 children and two teachers — and the massacre of 10 people, nine of them Black, in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, Murphy pledged to further strengthen school security and work with state lawmakers to pass legislation for safe weapons storage, additional firearm-use education and to give police better tools to track illegal weapons.

“Congress has failed to lead time and time and time again, so it’s up to us to do the job others are too weak to do,” Murphy said at a rally surrounded by gun-safety advocates the day after the Texas shooting.

Experts on firearm violence agree that gun control measures are critical to reducing the number of shootings, whether in schools — which comprise a tiny fraction of all gun deaths — in homes fraught with domestic violence, or in street crime, which is responsible for the bulk of firearms fatalities nationwide. They urge policymakers to also consider measures to improve parks and streetscapes, to keep kids engaged in positive activities and give them coping skills, and to expand access to mental health services.

Mental illness vs. violence in kids

Paul Boxer, a psychology professor at Rutgers-Newark, warned, however, that mental illness should not be confused with violent tendencies.

“There is a huge variety of symptoms and conditions under the banner term mental illness. That’s why it’s dangerous to conflate it” with violence, he said.

“A kid that feels really sad, or anxious, or stressed out, or has ADHD or PTSD, yes, that kid should absolutely get services and support,” Boxer said. “But that kid should not be looked at and determined to be a risk for violence because they are mentally ill. Absolutely not.”

“In general, mental illness does not cause violence. There are very specific, discrete kinds of symptoms of mental illness that are associated with violence,” Boxer said, like psychotic episodes in which people hear voices. “But that’s a very, very small sliver of the bigger picture of what constitutes mental illness.”

New Jersey spends millions on mental health services, much of it through the Medicaid program or in funding the state Department of Human Services provides to community-based clinics and programs. In his spending plan for fiscal year 2023, which lawmakers must approve by the end of June, Murphy also added $39 million — a mix of federal and state dollars — to boost wages for professionals who treat mental health and substance use issues and $12.8 million to implement the new 988 crisis hotline, set to roll out nationwide in mid-July. The Department of Children and Families also plans to expand county crisis-intervention efforts and mental health services for children.

Threat assessment training

Many schools in New Jersey have launched threat assessment initiatives in recent years, and an online training held Thursday drew more than 300 administrators, nurses and counselors, and law enforcement officials. The goal is to identify students who may be prone to violence and intervene before it’s too late. “What we are looking to do is to position ourselves in such a way as to be able to have someone on our radar who is moving along a pathway toward violence in our schools,” Jeff Gale, director of the state’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning, told the group.

In February, New Jersey’s acting education commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan published a 227-page guide as a road map for schools to develop comprehensive mental health programs. Even before the pandemic, 16.5% of New Jersey’s children between ages 6 and 17 had a mental health issue, while only half received treatment, she said — and COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation significantly. “The importance of providing a physically and mentally safe learning environment has never been greater,” Allen-McMillan wrote.

Democratic lawmakers also sought to help school districts address this growing need for mental health services with a bill designed to encourage universal depression screenings. Early versions would have required this for every student in grades 7 through 12, but the final version, passed in April 2020, made it optional and created a $1 million pool to fund research-based screening programs.

Behavioral health screenings

But the push for stronger universal behavioral health screenings continues. Although the focus initially was on addressing substance use, Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) has worked for nearly five years to pass a bill — reintroduced in January — that would require high schools use an evidence-based model called SBIRT, short for screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment, which some hospitals have used for years. New Jersey Citizen Action, a longtime advocate for that screening model, said pilot programs have been put in place in several schools, including Bordentown Regional High School, and data is now under review.

Trongone, the Millville superintendent, agreed universal screening is a critical tool for schools today. But districts need additional resources to properly train teachers and other school staff, including bus drivers and janitors, how to help students with mental health issues, and school staff need the time and space to do so. Even if teachers have the ability to do this work, he said, they lack the capacity.

Millville used part of $450,000 in federal pandemic funds to hire a trio of professionals to help identify troubled children in elementary, middle and high school, Trongone said. “But really the magnitude and acuity of the problem is beyond these three people. It needs a more sustained, deliberate and focused effort,” he added. “How are we going to provide support and therapy to our students on a consistent basis, and monitor their progress, just like you would for reading?”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-06 02:14:27 -0700