U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-NJ, 5th, is helping to push new legislation he hopes will encourage more people to pursue careers as school-based mental health service providers, citing a current, nationwide shortage of psychologists, social workers, and counselors available to students.

The Mental Health in Schools Excellence Program, primarily sponsored by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-PA, 1st, would establish a relationship between the federal government and institutions of higher learning, with the desired end result of expanded child access to services and providers.

"It actually allows the U.S. Department of Education and eligible graduate programs to work together to cover up to 50% of the cost of students getting their graduate degree in the field of psychology," Gottheimer said. "The idea here is to really help get more people trained in this area, more investment to become mental health service providers, whether that's in school or in other settings."

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While the shortage of professionals is not a new phenomenon, Gottheimer said, it fell under the microscope after kids were forced to take up remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Gottheimer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 24% increase in mental health emergency room visits in children ages 5 through 11 since last March, and a 31% bump in kids ages 12 to 17, as new mental health issues emerged or old ones resurfaced.

"Any of the doctors in my district will tell you that they've got so many young people, and others, coming to the emergency room, and there's just not enough beds in the hospital," Gottheimer said.

So, getting professionals back into school buildings this fall is critical, because as Gottheimer puts it, following more than a year of pandemic-related stress and lack of activities, mental health hurdles can impede further academic success and achievement, and put kids in danger.

One in five children in New Jersey, the congressman said, are diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and while he's not certain how that compares to other states or the nation at large, the shortage of adults trained to help them is pronounced.

Encouraging more people to study and get degrees in the field, potentially even some who've conquered their own mental health battles in the past, could be a significant boost.

"It's a big gap challenge that we've got, and something that I talk to our hospitals and doctors about all the time, so it's part of the reason why I think this is so important that we get this taken care of," Gottheimer said.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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