Tackling Teen Suicides in NJ — and the Online Connection

Lawmakers propose studying effects of electronic devices, online communication on schoolchildren. In related move, they want kids to be assessed for symptoms of depression

Credit: Courtesy graphic
Cyber bullying
With suicide the third leading cause of death among teens, New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a couple of new proposals to try and deal with the problem.

One is to study the impact of cellphone and social media use on children in school and another is to conduct annual written depression screenings, starting in middle school.

A 15-member temporary state commission would be tasked with exploring how electronic devices — and the access they provide to online communication — affect the physical and emotional health of students, and their academic performance.

The other bill calls for schools to assess students in grades seven through 12 for symptoms of depression, using a survey approved by the state Health Commissioner; if the screening indicates a mental health concern, school officials would be required to contact the parents and urge them to follow up with a physician.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington)
The measures, championed by Assembly health committee chairman Herbert Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) and fellow Democrats, add to other legislation recently introduced to help prevent suicides in New Jersey. Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), a longtime mental-health advocate, has proposed several changes to expand the capacity of schools to support students with mental health needs. (A 2016 law expanded suicide prevention on college campuses.)

Stress ‘intensified’ by social media

Nearly 700 people took their own lives in 2016 in New Jersey, according to state data, with suicide a particular concern among teens. Mental health issues are not being diagnosed as often as they should, experts note, and too few youngsters have access to effective treatment.

“Teens today are navigating a very different world,” Conaway, a physician himself, said. “The stressors that arise around puberty are now intensified by social media, which can be used to bully and make young people who are already susceptible to social pressure feel like they are not measuring up.”

While suicide has made national news recently with the deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef/traveler/journalist Anthony Bourdain, a Leonia native, the New Jersey Department of Health recently released figures that showed suicides declined here for the first time since 2011.

Deaths by suicide dropped 13 percent between 2015 and 2016, to 8.4 per 100,000 people over age 10 — which means 102 fewer people killed themselves that year than in the previous 12 months. This also represents the second-lowest suicide rate in the nation, according to federal figures, after Washington, D.C.

That said, a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that suicides have soared 30 percent in less than a decade nationwide; someone takes their own life roughly every 12 minutes in the United States. The CDC found that some 60 percent of these deaths involved individuals who had not been diagnosed with psychiatric problems, even though experts agree mental health issues are often an underlying issue in suicides.

Going undiagnosed, going without help

According to Conaway, only half of adolescents with depression are diagnosed before they reach adulthood, and two out of three don’t get the help they need. In addition, a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found the number of kids and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts more than doubled between 2008 and 2015, he said.

“These feelings of sadness and hopelessness don’t simply go away. Depression is an illness, not a phase,” Conaway said. “Teens are notoriously moody. But we have to distinguish between typical teenage angst and actual depression so we can reach these children before it is too late.”

One bill, (A-3926), sponsored by Conaway and Assemblywomen Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) and Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), would require boards of education to implement depression screenings for students in grades seven through 12. Introduced in early May, it has yet to be posted for a hearing and does not have a Senate counterpart.

Under the proposal, school nurses or doctors would administer the test and ensure each student’s privacy was protected in the process. The school would notify parents if depression is found, but also stress this was not a formal diagnosis and urge them to follow up with a pediatrician or other provider. Parents could also opt their children out of the testing.

The second piece of legislation, (A-4248), was introduced last week by Conaway, Murphy, and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Monmouth), chair of the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee; it would explore the use of cellphones and social media by students at public schools. The measure also awaits action and does not have a Senate version.

The bill would create a commission, led by the state Commissioner of Education or his designee; it would include representatives from the teachers union, school boards association, school mental health professionals, parent-teacher groups and other education organizations, and public members appointed by legislative leaders.

The group would examine how frequently students engage with social media and smart phones during school and the impact that has on their academic performance and emotional health; this would include the effects on bullying, harassment, and other violent or disruptive behaviors. In addition, the panel would look at physical indicators, including depression, sleep deprivation, weight change, and high blood pressure.

Under the measure, the process to appoint the commission would begin as soon as it was signed into law. The experts would have up to a year to complete their work and issue a report and recommendations to the governor and state Legislature; the panel would disband a month later.

There are now several confidential 24/7 hotlines for those in need, or for their concerned friends or family members, including:

  • The Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) a national service that connects callers of any age to local crisis centers.
  • New Jersey Suicide Prevention Hopeline, 1-855-654-6735, enables callers to talk to a trained peer counselor or mental health professional.