TRENTON – Among the priorities jockeying for legislative attention this fall is one setting up a statewide screening program meant to identify students needing mental health help.

Advocates and lawmakers are pushing for a hearing on a bill that would take statewide a program known as SBIRT, short for Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment. It is designed to flag students who would benefit from an in-depth conversation regarding their mental health or substance use.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said everyone knows it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, especially after the effects of the pandemic, and called the SBIRT model “the gold standard.”

“Those students who suffer quietly, those who suffer from depression, from other mental health issues, substance use disorder, don’t talk about it. If only they could. If only they could be identified,” Vitale said. “It’s something that they’re embarrassed about, they’re concerned about or because of their depression, they just can’t talk about it. And so, these tools are significant in terms of the well-being and the future of our children.”

“Our students are worth investing in,” said Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington. “Our children are worth investing in.”

The program doesn’t take many resources to get off the ground – mostly, some training and materials. But what comes after the questionnaire flags the need for help gets tricky, as behavioral services are generally in short supply.

Pilot program in Bordentown

In a pilot program done at Bordentown Regional High School, 100 students were screened, 51 received a brief intervention and 23 were referred for further counseling. Seven accessed services, said Nell Geiger, the school’s student assistance counselor.

“It’s simply a questionnaire that starts a conversation with a student before me,” Geiger said. “It’s a channel, a lifeline, to find an individual that needs help.”

Emeline Kovac, a junior at Bordentown Regional, said a lot of students struggle with mental health but can’t get the help they need, maybe for financial reasons or not feeling supported at home.

“By getting the screening through the school, students may be able to come out and express their concerns more rather than having to hide them,” Kovac said.

“Mental health has to be first,” said Robert Walder, principal at Bordentown Regional High School. “A student can’t focus on the science curriculum or an AP test if they’re not mentally healthy.”

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Laura Waddell, the health care program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, said schools are best-positioned to reach students who need help and that screening all students ensures everyone needing support gets it.

“The only way to remove the stigma that students feel about sharing their feelings and opening up about their suffering is to make the process of sharing commonplace, to make it universal and to make it punitive-free,” Waddell said.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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