Battling on Front Lines of Mental Health in NJ’s Public Schools

John Mooney | October 17, 2019 | Education
A task force of educators and health care experts are ready with recommendations to help fight suicide and self-harm among students and staff

The numbers are scary. One in five teenagers in the United States is diagnosed with a mental health disorder, yet only half of them receive treatment.

Nationally, one in seven teens have seriously considered suicide, and in New Jersey between 2013-2015, more than 2,700 of them were treated in hospitals for attempted suicide or self-inflicted wounds. Nearly 300 took their lives in that time.

Faced with those stark realities, a task force of educators and health care professionals this week released a report on the state of mental health services in New Jersey public schools. The task force was convened in the aftermath of the latest school shootings plaguing the country. Its members had a lot to say.

The report commissioned by the New Jersey School Boards Association made 71 recommendations, ranging from prevention to intervention to response and included topics like the role of families and social media.

The underlying message was that while schools cannot be the only place to address these challenges, they still have a long way to go. At the same time, the report contained few recommendations about increased staff or funding.

 One of its lead authors said in an interview that it was less about statewide policies and requirements and more about educating schools and communities.

“I’ve been at this a long time, and I’m thrilled with all the attention that intervention has gotten,” said Vincent DeLucia, a director of professional development for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“But we have lagged when it comes to addressing prevention,” he said. “And I’m not just talking with children but with staff as well.”

The following are some of the central recommendations of the report, including a few of the more provocative ones:

  • Create a community response team (CRT) in each district that includes stakeholders in and out of schools available to address crises.
  • Embrace a school culture and instructional strategy that addresses children’s social and emotional needs in addition to their academic ones.
  • Ensure that certified personnel like counselors, social workers and school psychologist are available to consult with students, families and staff.
  • Conduct surveys of school climate, and analyze results to determine and execute steps to address what is needed. Evaluate what if any threat of suicide is indicated in the survey.
  • Include the so-called restorative-justice model in disciplinary codes that allows for students to talk through their misbehaviors with other students.
  • Teach students about the dangers of social media and establish a protocol to warn parents, educators and others about inappropriate use of social media.
  • Develop protocols in each school to ensure that every child is known and regularly contacted by at least one school employee who is there to help.
  • Convene parents, teachers and students to find ways to relieve the pressures that many students experience.
  • Create a system for responding to tips or information about mental health issues facing individual students.
  • Set aside a “wellness room” where students can go to decompress or get away from bullying.

DeLucia is realistic; a similar task force issued a report in 2015 with more than 100 recommendations. But he said districts and educators are primed to step up at a time that many students are in crisis, as are their communities.

“If given the permission and the leadership shows a way, faculty and staff will not only embrace it but I think will take and run with it,” he said. “They see first hand the benefits.”