TRENTON – Gov. Phil Murphy selected youth mental health as the lead initiative for the year ahead for the National Governors Association, as he became the group’s chairman at its summer meeting Friday in Maine.

“Rates of mental health issues among young people were steadily increasing for the 10 years prior to COVID, and the pandemic only added fuel to the fire,” Murphy said. “My Chair’s Initiative will focus on holistically addressing young people’s social, emotional, and mental health needs. Working together, we will identify innovative, evidence-based strategies that states can tailor for their unique challenges.”

A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 37% of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic and 44% reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. School connectedness was a key factor.

“As challenging as the previous two years have been for us adults, we know the strain is nothing compared to what too many of America’s children were under,” Murphy said in his speech to governors, according to the remarks as prepared for delivery.

“The youngest have missed out on critical education and socialization opportunities during their most formative years. Pre-teens and teens missed out on milestones they’d looked forward to for the whole of their young lives – graduations, proms, sports, senior trips, and summer camps,” he said. “They missed time with family and friends – and too many of them lost family and friends.”

The initiative will bring together policy experts, public officials and private sector leaders to take a holistic approach to the youth mental health crisis.

It began with a panel discussion Friday that included Amy Kennedy of Brigantine, education director of the Kennedy Forum, a mental health advocacy group founded by her husband, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy. Amy Kennedy lost a bid for Congress as the Democratic nominee in the 2nd District in 2020.

“The evidence is clear when it comes to the alarming state of youth mental health in this country,” Kennedy said. “The question is, what are we going to do to address this public health emergency?”

The initiative’s four core pillars include prevention and resilience building; increasing awareness and reducing stigma; access and affordability of quality treatment and care; and caregiver and educator training and support. Its connection with academic growth is also acknowledged.

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First lady Tammy Murphy, who chairs the NGA Spouses’ Program for the next year, introduced her initiative to create a national model to help address the maternal and infant health crisis in the United States. That is similar to her main policy priority in New Jersey.

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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