By Karen Lowrie and Brooke Schwartzman

Childhood, particularly adolescence, has always been marked by challenges, as youth learn to navigate the world. But times are changing; youth of today have faced major shifts in societal, environmental, community, familial, and individual spheres. From 2009 to 2019, 40% more high school students nationwide reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue of youth mental health to crisis levels. Close to 40% of high school students reported poor mental health, either most or all of the time, during the pandemic. New Jersey has not been immune to the impacts of degraded youth mental health. Approximately 8% of NJ youth have anxiety, 9% have consumed illicit drugs in the past month, and 5 out of every 1000 children emergency department visits are for self-harm.

In the wake of rising mental health concerns, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) seeks to reform New Jersey’s current School Linked Services (SLS) program, a support structure that links schools and social services. These supports include student academic achievement and mental wellness initiatives in 90 school districts, health centers, family success centers, juvenile delinquency, and adolescent pregnancy prevention. While administrators in participating districts tout the efficacy and immediacy of SLS, its scope is limited. DCF states that in the 35 years the program has existed, SLS has only been expanded to 5% of New Jersey schools and serves only 3% of the state’s students.

A new initiative entitled the NJ Statewide Student Support Services Network (NJ4S) has been designed to serve as SLS’s replacement. It would function as a hub-and-spoke model where 15 regional hubs will receive requests for services and then direct them to local sites. These “spokes” include schools, libraries, community centers, faith-based organizations and more. The services provided in schools would be targeted towards specific communities and age groups, and would function as tiers of increasingly more involved initiatives. While DCF asserts that NJ4S will create a strong statewide network, encourage community engagement, and reach more students, staff at current SLS schools are concerned about the potential harms that will come from their mental health programming being defunded.

The research will provide policy makers with a current and more robust understanding of the state of youth mental health in New Jersey as they face upcoming decisions concerning the reforming of SLS, and as they may face other near-term policy and program options that affect factors that impact youth mental health and well-being, or other proposals related to the identification, treatment, and support for mental health conditions in New Jersey’s youth. Our final report will include a summary and analysis of the most recent available direct and indirect measures of youth mental health. Data for the mental health indicators will be sourced from a range of federal and state agencies including the CDC, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the New Jersey Hospital Discharge Data Collection System. New Jersey-specific mental health data will be analyzed for pre-COVID and post-COVID snapshots, comparisons to national data, and relationships with demographic variables such as gender, race, and economic status.

The study will also feature highlights and lessons learned from successful mental health infrastructure serving youth in several other states. It will conclude with a set of data and research-informed policy recommendations related to providing resources, support, and services to positively impact youth mental health and wellbeing. Findings will emphasize areas of mental health where NJ youth struggle, which youth are especially vulnerable to negative outcomes, and where equity can be addressed in provision of services.