New Jersey students would have to be screened for depression a half dozen times during the years leading up to high school graduation, if a bill advancing through the state Legislature were to become law.

Following a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that young people be screened annually for depression, the measure requires that public schools administer annual depression screenings for students in grades 7 through 12.

"Tragically, far too few people that suffer from mental illness actually get diagnosed," Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), primary bill sponsor and chair of the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee, said at a recent hearing. "For those who screen positive, information will be sent to the parents and the parents can get their child the care that they need."

Conaway noted parents would have the chance to "opt out" of the screening for their children, as current law allows them to do with other screenings for physical health.

Opponents of the bill as is said they're fine with its intent but are concerned with its implementation.

Debbie Bradley, director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said while every principal in the state has concerns about the rising rates of youth anxiety and depression, this proposed law would make even worse the recurring issue of understaffing at schools.

"Many of our members suggested that this system be integrated with the current annual physicals that many parents bring their students to," Bradley said.

The screening — a two-question survey — could be administered by a "qualified professional" at the school, the bill states. A qualified professional, according to the bill, means a school psychologist, school nurse, school counselor, student assistance coordinator, school social worker, or physician.

Conaway's office cited a recent study in the journal Pediatrics that found the number of kids and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts jumped by more than 100 percent from 2008 to 2015.

The bill would allow the data to be collected in a confidential manner and forward to the Department of Education and Department of Health so they can attempt to identify statewide trends and develop a response.

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