At the State House, a roundtable on the mental health of NJ’s youth

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Elena Perez knows firsthand about the loneliness and stigma of being student with a mental health problem.

Now at Montclair State University and the director of the March For Our Lives anti-gun violence movement in New Jersey, she was diagnosed in high school with PTSD and bipolar disorder.

“A lot of my peers, when they act up, they’re not trying to be bad kids,” she said. “They need help. It’s a cry for help.”

Perez was one of nine stakeholders who joined six lawmakers Tuesday during a three-hour roundtable at the State House on what is increasingly being seen as a mental health crisis among young people here and across the nation.

“When New Jersey’s had over 100 students in 2017 commit suicide as teens, it’s fair to say that we have some sort of mental health crisis in our country,” said Dave Aderhold, superintendent of schools for West Windsor-Plainsboro.

“Any one of us sitting in this room can point to a terrible story about a student in one of our districts that has attempted or committed suicide,” said Teresa Ruiz, the Essex County Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Ruiz and the other lawmakers empaneled the roundtable discussion to gather information on how best to address the physical, social and psychological well-being of youths across the state, who they said are increasingly beset by mental illness, substance abuse and suicide.

Also on hand were representatives of the health and education worlds, to discuss strategies they have in place. The discussion also turned to identifying funding opportunities to help deal with the problems.

Anxiety, depression, drug abuse and suicide are said to be on the rise among teenagers — and kids even younger.

“This is not just our 18 to 24-year-olds. We’re getting down to middle schools and preschool levels,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter. “Something’s inherently wrong with what we’re doing.”

One participant suggested that there is indeed something different about the world facing today’s kids.

“Think about it,” said Alisha DeLorenzo of the Garden State Equality advocacy group. “This is the first generation that has grown up with terrorism and mass school shootings.”

Hearing of the importance to deliver mental health services to kids “where they are,” there was a call Tuesday among the lawmakers for more in-school services — additional counselors, school nurses and therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who can come to schools. All that’s even more crucial in a low-income district, they said.

Children are reaching out, said Democrat Herb Conaway, who chairs of the Health Committee.

“Some of them suffering great deprivations, food insecurity, violence in the home, mental health issues in the home,” he said. “And they bring that to school and then manifest those impacts in anxiety and depression — things which are left untreated lead to addiction, further untreated lead to suicide and loss of life. We can intervene and make a huge difference for children.”

Among the ideas discussed at Tuesday’s roundtable were:

  • the importance of early intervention;
  • the need for more screening for depression and suicidal thoughts;
  • funding possibilities;
  • and the need to effort to connect every student with an adult at school who can detect a change in a student’s outlook.

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt has introduced a bill that would require a pediatrician to conduct a depression screening on every child 12 years or older as part of an annual wellness visit.

“They’re the professionals,” the South Jersey Democrat said. “They’re the ones who are looking at our children’s eyes, listening to their heart, really checking the whole body. And if we’re not checking the mental health part of them, then it’s not a holistic visit.”