Murphy announces twin programs to help teens with mental health woes

Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday announced a pair of programs designed to equip those in the state’s education system with the skills and tools they need to address the persistent and largely hidden problem of mental illness and suicide among young people.

Under the Mental Health First Aid Training program, at least one person from every school district and higher education institution would undergo intensive training to become a certified Mental Health First Aid instructor, learning the risk factors and warning signs of mental health issues and how best to connect those afflicted with appropriate support services.

The second program calls for the Department of Education to create a working group, comprising educators, mental health care providers, other state agencies and advocates to help school districts develop the support and resources needed to provide help on an ongoing basis. The Mental Health Working Group will also have the mission of figuring out how to share those resources with other districts and those involved in providing the case.

“For far too long, we as a society have been too passive on this issue,” Murphy said during a press event at Maple Shade High School. “We feel proud to share our exercise routines with one another and recognize that eating well and taking care of ourselves is part of being a healthy human being. But when it comes to our mental health, we often lack the vocabulary to articulate how we are feeling and the skills necessary to identify when something is wrong.”

In announcing the initiatives, officials quoted grim statistics underscoring the severity of the problem. One in five Americans struggle with mental illness and many don’t reach for help, at times because they don’t know where it can be found.

Among the young, the problem is especially jarring, with suicide standing as the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, and the rate rising more than 35% between 2018 and 2019 in New Jersey. More than one in four students saying they often feel sad or hopeless.

“Even for students who are not facing a crisis in their mental health, issues like anxiety, isolation, loneliness, and depression are becoming more and more common,” Murphy said.

Joining the first-term Democrat at the event in Burlington County was a bevy of New Jersey officials and lawmakers.

State Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson said teachers often have the best insight into students under stress.

“Teacher’s plates are already pretty full. Our goal here is to recognize that, and recognize that no one cares more about the students that they see every day than teachers and other educational professionals,” she said. “They are the trusted ear that young people turn to so often, and they absolutely want to provide that help. So now our goal is to arm them with the tools they need to be that help, to identify that action plan, to help students across our state.”

Assemblyman Herb Conaway said the initiatives will help address a key factor in mental illness.

“Mental health in general has been kept in the shadows,” said the Burlington County Democrat. “We don’t talk about it in the way that we should, we don’t fund it in the way that we should.”

Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald said the programs are geared toward avoiding preventable tragedies.

“We read about these tragedies after they happen and everyone’s heart is broken at that time,” he said. “We believe that, with the right mechanisms put into place, we can avoid these, help children and help their families going forward.”

The training program, which would also be open to charters and private schools that educate students with disabilities, is slated to cost $6 million and will be funded in the current budget though a $100 million allocation for opioid abuse.

Also at the event, Murphy addressed an unrelated topic that has roiled Trenton for a year.

Last Friday, a legislative committee studying the reform of the state’s economic development incentives came out with its report on how best to restart the initiatives, which have been at a standstill as Murphy and top lawmakers of his own party have sparred over how they should be regulated.

The report sided with Murphy on placing caps on awards made to individual companies. But it sided with Senate President Steve Sweeney on not putting a lid on the total tax breaks that can be awarded by the state Economic Development Authority.

“I continue to feel strongly that we need an overall cap,” said Murphy, who impaneled a task force that said criticized the previous incarnation of incentives for favoring insiders. “And the reason is that otherwise it is an open ended budgetary item, and we wouldn’t do that with any other part of government.”

He also repeated his point that other states also have a ceiling in place on total incentives.

“I’d be more cautious about it if I thought other states were uncapped, and we can’t find any other states that are uncapped,” he said.

Earlier this week, Sweeney expressed frustration over Murphy’s position.

“I don’t know how many more times we can say it or how much more clearly we can say it: We’re giving you caps. We’re giving you caps that you can award per job or per project,” he said. “I’m not supporting a bill that has an overall cap.”

Still, both men said they are getting closer.