The coronavirus pandemic has created a "cataclysmic event" of increased anxiety and depression amongst people in all demographics in the Garden State.

So where should they go?

That concern, and some "alerting" statistics released since the COVID-19 crisis took hold of New Jersey, helped launch a package of proposed laws aimed at improving access to mental health care.

"This sustained period of fear, uncertainty, instability, loss and pain will have lasting repercussions on the well-being of residents for years to come," said Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-Camden. "Our health care systems must be prepared to care for not only the physical health, but the mental health of the people throughout our state."

Three of the five bills establish pilot programs that would test the feasibility of expanding care through a number of initiatives. One, for example, would help connect emergency-room patients with critical behavioral health care services — not all individuals who come to the hospital with mental health issues meet the criteria for hospitalization.

Other proposed pilot programs would establish 24/7 crisis centers in up to five counties, and introduce behavioral care at urgent care facilities. Another, the Regional Community Behavioral Health Pilot Program, focuses specifically on improving access for Medicaid patients.

"This is about getting people treated at the best setting, that has the best outcomes, and at the lowest cost," Greenwald told New Jersey 101.5.

Additional bills in the package, introduced in late January, require state departments to publish a guide to help community health centers navigate the process of getting licensed to provide integrated care, and set up a zero-interest loan program for community health centers so that they can afford staffing and infrastructure changes necessary to provide behavioral health services.

In New Jersey, according to a Household Pulse Survey from the Census Bureau, about 40% of respondents cited symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder in January.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits for mental health reasons shot up by 31% in 2020 among children aged 12 to 17, compared to the year prior, as of October 2020. Mental health-related emergency visits also jumped 24% from 2019 to 2020 among kids aged 5 to 11.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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