Bill Would Ensure Mental Health Providers Are Trained in Suicide Prevention

Legislation comes as suicides among teens and twenty-somethings spike

New Jersey would be the 10th state to require basic suicide prevention training for a wide range of mental health workers under a proposal advancing in Trenton to combat what is now the second-leading cause of death among young residents.

The state Assembly voted unanimously on Monday in favor of the bipartisan legislation sponsored by Assembly members BettyLou DeCroce (R-Morris), Daniel Benson (D-Mercer), Kevin Rooney (R-Passaic) and a half-dozen colleagues. However, there is no current Senate version of the bill, which dates back to 2018 but did not gain traction in the past.

The Garden State’s overall suicide rate of 8.7 per 100,000 people is far below the national average of 14.5, according to 2019 numbers from America’s Health Rankings, and had been on the decline for several years.

Spike in self-harm

But self-harm is now the second leading cause of death among 15-25 year-old New Jerseyans, state officials said, and results in more than 100 fatalities a year, according to federal figures. Public health leaders have also seen a recent spike in suicides among preteens here, especially young girls.

“This issue hit very close to home recently, when we lost yet another teenager to suicide in a community where my family and I have very strong roots, and where young people in my family grew up. It was one more vibrant, short life lost to a growing, terrible phenomenon,” DeCroce said Monday.

In Morris County, youngsters ages 10 to 19 made up 6 in 10 of the suicide or self-harm-related emergency visits in recent years, she said, and the numbers continue to climb.

“Given these heartbreaking statistics, it is crucial that we start treating suicide like the public health crisis it is,” Benson said after the vote. His office said nine other states now have similar requirements in place.

Earlier this month Gov. Phil Murphy announced several efforts to address these same concerns, including a plan to expand mental health training in schools and universities. Murphy pledged to invest $6 million in a partnership with the National Council on Behavioral Health to make sure every public school district, and some private schools for students with disabilities, have at least one person trained in mental health first aid. The program would also be open to higher-education programs.

Best practices for better mental health

The governor also said the state Department of Education will head a mental health working group made up of government agencies, providers, educators, advocates and other stakeholders to identify resources and best-practice models to support better mental health.

“When young people need help and support, we want to make sure that the educators they trust have the tools to respond,” Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson said at Murphy’s event.

Health care advocates at New Jersey Citizen Action have also called for all schools to have in place effective screening systems to identify mental health or substance-use issues early on. In October the group published a report, “Youth At Risk,” that advocated for the expansion of the SBIRT program — for Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment — that has been adopted by a handful of districts.

The bill approved in the Assembly on Monday (A-1443) calls for psychologists, psychoanalysts, social workers, marriage and family therapists and addiction counselors to complete at least four hours of suicide prevention training in order to receive their state license. It does not apply to psychiatrists, doctors licensed through the state medical board.

Under the proposal, officials in the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees professional licensing boards, would establish a list of training programs to satisfy the requirements. These could include modules developed by federal agencies or nonprofit organizations, like the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. If passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, it would take effect in three months.

“With suicide prevention training, mental health practitioners who are on the front lines of this crisis will be better equipped to provide up-to-date treatment to at-risk individuals and provide patients with the emergency care they need,” Benson said. “If just one life is saved as a result of expanded training, these efforts will have been worth it.”