Student ID cards at all New Jersey public middle schools and high schools, as well as at all colleges in the state, would have to include a telephone number for a suicide prevention hotline under a proposed law advanced by a Senate committee.

Advocates for suicide awareness suggest it's a simple move that could further support schools with reducing stigma around mental health issues and leading troubled youth to the resources they may need.

S-550 was approved unanimously Thursday by the Senate Higher Education Committee. It would apply to public schools that include any students in grades 7 through 12, and institutions of higher education, that issue identification cards to students.

"The availability of professional help during times of distress can mean the difference between life and death," said state Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, a primary sponsor of the bill. "Printing the hotline number on every student ID will help stem this tragic epidemic and give young people access to the mental health resources and support they need."

Between the three-year periods of 2007-2009 and 2016-2018, the suicide rate among individuals aged 10 to 24 in New Jersey increased by 39%, according to statistics released in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2018, according to the CDC report, New Jersey recorded one of the lowest rates of suicide among 10-to-24-year-olds — 6.1 per 100,000 population. There were 291 suicides among this age group between 2016 and 2018 in New Jersey.

"Because of the historical stigma of mental health issues and suicide, too often people who are struggling do not reach out for help," said Wendy Sefcik, chairwoman of the New Jersey chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Sefcik lost her 16-year-old son T.J. to suicide 10 years ago. She said her well-loved, intelligent and affectionate sun was "struggling silently and really able to mask his inner pain."

"In the vast majority of cases, suicide is preventable but the way it's preventable is to identify people that are struggling and to get them to the support and resources that they need," Sefcik said. "That's why this bill is so important, because it puts, literally right at our kids' fingertips, a very tremendous resource."

Sefcik suggested the bill can go even further by requiring the number of a texting helpline for suicide prevention because many teens and young adults prefer to converse by text message rather than over the phone.

A companion measure to Pennacchio's bill in the Assembly has not yet been considered by a committee.

New Jersey's suicide prevention line, NJ Hopeline, is available by phone (855-654-6735), chat, text and email. The U.S. line for individuals with suicidal thoughts is 800-273-TALK.

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

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