Emphasis placed on youth mental health, as reports of depression increase.
The latest state budget dedicates well over $120 million to mental and behavioral health care. Money will be going toward the 988 suicide and crisis hotline, expanding the number of mental health professionals in the state and funding a new statewide program that offers more mental health services to more students when they return to school in September.
The move to bolster existing mental health services and fund new ones arrives as people of all ages continue to struggle with mental health issues both in the state and across the country. In New Jersey, half of all middle school students reported struggling with feelings of sadness, emptiness or depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2021 statewide report prepared by the Center for Research and Evaluation on Education and Human Services at Montclair State University for the state Department of Human Services. Nonbinary students reported the highest percentage, 85.3%, as compared to other groups.
Across the country, social isolation among older adults alone accounts for an estimated $6.7 billion in excess Medicare spending annually, largely due to increased hospital and nursing facility spending, according to a 2023 report from the United States Surgeon General.
Nationally, the suicide rate among people aged 10-24 remained stable from 2001 through 2007 and then increased 62% from 2007 through 2021, according to a June 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Keeping parents in mind
Nonprofit organizations like the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide in Freehold have been allocated $250,000 in the latest state budget for mental health toolkits that were developed with parents in mind, according to Susan Tellone, the organization’s clinical director. The toolkits give definitions of what mental health is and what it means, along with providing information about school and community resources.
“It really talks about the community mental health system that’s already in place, the Children’s System of Care, which is available to [them] for free … and it really navigates that whole system for them,” said Tellone. “…it’s such a complex system that people give up early on … and this resource gives them that map … it’s almost like a GPS to the mental health system in New Jersey.”
A printed version of the behavioral health toolkit will be distributed to the parents of every sixth grader in the state in September, according to Dawn Doherty, the executive director at the nonprofit. And the $250,000 that the organization received in the state budget will be used specifically to move the toolkit onto a digital platform statewide. By the spring of 2024, the organization will be able to digitally distribute the toolkit to every state resident, Doherty said.
The 988 suicide and crisis hotline has been in operation in New Jersey for over a year now and it receives more than $31 million in grants in the new state budget. The state’s 988 lifeline centers get 4,500 to 5,000 calls a month, said Valerie Mielke, assistant commissioner for the state Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, during a roundtable discussion at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Center.
Since 988 launched, calls in New Jersey have increased by nearly 22%, according to Sarah Adelman, the commissioner for the state Department of Human Services. A poll conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the market research firm IPSOS this summer found that 82% of Americans are not familiar with the 988 hotline.
Services for students
Meanwhile, the state has continued to allocate money to address youth mental health, including $43 million for a program that aims to offer more mental health services to more students. The program, officially known as the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Service (NJ4S) network, is scheduled to be in place before the first day of the new school year in September.
The new state budget also allocated $5 million for a mental health diversion program. This money will be deposited in the “Mental Health Diversion Program Support Fund” as the bill that addresses the mental health diversion program has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy. Of the $5 million, $1 million will be allocated for program operations in Essex County.
The bill seeks to create a statewide program to redirect people with serious mental health disorders away from having a public record of conviction or serving time in a county jail or state prison. The legislation also seeks to allow participants to engage in mental health treatment and social services, with a goal to reduce recidivism, or the tendency to relapse into unhealthy behaviors.
“But what I wanted to be sure [of] was that we were securing funding so that when the rollout of the program started that there would be money there,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said of the bill. Ruiz is a primary sponsor of the bill. “The secondary thing was to put money in the budget in the event for whatever reason if the bill stalls or is conditionally vetoed, which I don’t believe any of those things would happen, but that to give the bandwidth as far as financial resources to the attorney general to support the existing programs that have been running on shoestrings, quite frankly, all across … the state,” she said.