State lawmakers want to address mental health issues among NJ youth

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New Jersey state lawmakers say that they are hoping to address what they say is a growing mental health crisis among state youth.

Members of the state Assembly and Senate sat down with mental health and education professionals at a Statehouse roundtable Tuesday to talk solutions.

“We're talking about nothing less than facing down a huge mental health care crisis that's impacting all of our children from [kindergarten], right through high school,” says Democratic Assemblyman Herb Conaway.

Some of the ideas addressed at the discussion included providing more access to clinical social workers and child psychologists, universal mental health screening of school kids starting at 7 years old, and using new federal rules that allow Medicaid to cover mental health and substance abuse services in schools.

“How do we come up with strategies to help the students stay in the classroom so that they're not spending the entire day in guidance?” asked Sonia Rodrigues-Marto, the director of Child and Adolescent Services for Rutgers Behavioral Health.

Rodrigues-Marto says that she has heard young children make statements about wanting to die.

“Sometimes they know what it means, sometimes they really don't understand it,” she says.

Rodrigues-Marto says that social media is making the challenges of growing up more pronounced.

“I also think that they're constantly comparing themselves to other kids. That's hard because they feel that they're left out or there's a lot more opportunity for kids to make fun of them,” she says.

Assemblyman Conway says that growing technology is also contributing to the issue.

“I didn't have a cellphone in my hand from the time I was 10 years old. I didn't have all the troubles of the world coming into my phone and having then to be exposed to that. I didn't have bullying that could happen a world away,” he says.

Conway is a doctor who says that he envisions big legislation that restructures how mental health services are administered to the children who need it.

“What we see in adulthood presents in childhood. So, let's address it there, let's provide the interventions there and save the life of that adult,” he says.

State Sen. Joe Vitale and state child welfare officials will speak Thursday about preventing adverse childhood experiences. There will also be a screening in the Senate chambers of a documentary on treating toxic stress.

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