Gov. Phil Murphy last week signed a law adding mental health as a central piece of New Jersey’s student learning standards, the benchmarks from which public schools build their curricula.
The law is the second of its kind in the country, and aims to recognize the importance of teaching children — and adults — the importance of mental health in the growth and well-being of New Jersey’s students.
The signing prompted NJ Spotlight to speak this week with Kelly Moore, a psychologist and chief investigator with the Children’s Center for Resilience and Trauma Recovery at Rutgers University, about the state of children’s mental health in New Jersey and how the new law might help. She called it a “game-changer.” The following are edited excerpts of the conversation.
NJ Spotlight: As many of our children return to school in the next few weeks, can you give us an overview of the state of our children’s mental health?
Moore: As someone who does a lot of training on trauma work with providers who work with children, one statistic that was put out by the American Psychiatric Association was that there is a pretty large percentage of young people where we start to see mental illness presenting itself, somewhere around 50 percent [of warning signs showing] by age 14. Additionally, a recent study said the rate of suicide of black children is double that of white children by age 13, and then it reverses itself, where by ages 13 to 18, the risk is higher for white children. What we know is suicide rates are increasing, and we also know that mental illness is being spotted at younger ages.
Another layer that is on top of all of that is this talk about “adverse childhood experiences,” and that the early exposure to trauma and toxic stress can have long-term overall health outcomes, quality of life outcomes, even the duration of life outcomes. It’s really important that, if we are going to improve health overall and have a healthier generation, it really does start with improving the quality of their experiences when they are young and addressing mental illness a lot earlier, rather than waiting until they are 25 or 30 years old.
Q: Adverse childhood experiences and trauma are getting a lot of attention, but they take a lot of forms. Can you explain that a little more?
A: Most people when they think of trauma think of medical trauma, like getting shot with a gun, or a physical trauma. But when we are talking about adverse childhood experience and toxic stress, trauma takes on a broader definition. It is more than one incident where something bad happened to you. While that is traumatic, we’re talking about the long-term impact of growing up in poverty, growing up in communities where there is a risk of violence on a regular basis, being in a home where there is a parent struggling with a serious mental illness. Or there is domestic violence in the home or physical abuse. These kinds of issues can result in long-term harm if they are not addressed in any point in time or children are not provided with spaces, places and people where they can access their resiliency.
Q: Let’s jump to schools. Are they not addressing this? They have school psychologists and counselors. Are they not trained enough in addressing these issues?
A: I think that schools in New Jersey are showing signs of going in that direction. We live in a very progressive state, and we are definitely a leader in many ways. But I can tell you in working with a lot of schools professionally that there is still a lot of room for growth. For example, school psychologists are there working in schools in a very defined role. They are working out of a child study team and they are doing assessments and focusing on ways to help students learn. They may not be able to work to address all these other issues.
Yes, we have school counselors, but I think there is a lot of work to be done to help schools and school-based professionals understand what trauma does and how it does impact overall learning. I think some training, with some professional development days, can do a lot to help develop their knowledge and awareness.
Q: What are some real-life examples on the ground of best practices for what a school can do?
A: One of the things that schools can do is incorporate social and emotional learning in their professional development days that are mandated for their staff anyway. You can really start to build that awareness. I always say to educators who I work with … that we are not asking them to become therapists. We are asking them to use a different lens. If I see a young child acting out and aggressive, if I have more knowledge as to what may be contributing to that I may address it very differently.
I also believe that teachers are more and more integrating mindfulness breaks into their classrooms, taking breaks throughout the day to implement strategies to improve the mood in the classroom, to help children de-stress for a minute from the rigor of the day.
Q: What is an individual teacher to do, one who is trained in this and sees the warning signs in a child? What do they do next? Is it their role to address this or go to the psychologist or family or somewhere in between?
A: First you talk to the child and tell him you may notice something is different, especially if there is a relationship with that child. And the more you ask, then you move into helping them find someone they can talk more about this [with] and then make some suggestions. It may be some trusted adult outside of yourself who has that training. If you think the child in serious risk, then you definitely move a lot faster and get them to safety. That’s a different conversation.
Q: Will this new law help and how so?
A: I think this new law is a game-changer. The fact that New Jersey will have this as part of our curriculum is major. We are the second state to mandate this K-12, and one of the things you are doing is creating a generation of kids with some level of emotional intelligence from a very young age. You are also reducing the stigma of mental illness, which is one of the biggest barriers for people in getting help. They don’t want to be perceived as being all these terms like wacko or crazy. By having a curriculum that focuses on mental and emotional wellness, you stand a good chance of reducing that kind of stigma that is attached to that. Kids by the time they are in 7th or 8th grade have been learning this stuff since the time they were in kindergarten. So, if they see a friend who is moody or depressed or skipping meals, they can say, “Hey, you should go talk to someone who can help you” rather than saying, “What’s wrong with you?”
That’s where the game-changing part is. It’s hard to talk about these things, and this will help open the door to more healthy conversations and increased skills in this area.