By Adam Clark
New Jersey schools are one step closer to mandatory depression screening amid a mental health crisis that’s driving an increase in teen suicide.
A state Assembly committee earlier this month signed off on a bill requiring depression screening for public school students in seventh through 12th grade as long as their parents consent.
Students would take a computerized screening survey at school, and the district would notify parents if their child has been flagged for signs of depression. Parents would be advised by the school that the screening is not the same as a diagnosis, and they should share the results with their child’s doctor.
“This is a way to make sure that every kid gets screened, so that we can prevent future tragedies,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington.
Conaway, a physician who proposed the bill in 2018, pointed to an American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that all children 12 and older get screened for depression.
Though still rare, suicide has increased among young people both in New Jersey and nationwide. The number of suicides among 10 to 24 year olds increased 56% between 2007 and 2017, according to federal data. In 2017, New Jersey documented 100 suicides in the 15- to 24-year-old age group, its highest total since the 1990s.
An NJ Advance Media investigation published in October found tens of thousands of New Jersey students attend schools without the recommended number of counselors, and mental health treatment remains inaccessible or unaffordable for many families.
Depression screening in schools could help parents identify their child’s symptoms and get treatment before they are in crisis, lawmakers said.
“The last thing we want to do is hear in the news that there is another young child committing suicide,” said Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera, D-Camden.
The bill passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee unanimously, despite questions about the confidentiality of the screening results and the potential for false positives.
Conaway said a student’s screening results would remain private like other school health records. He expects a small percentage of students to be flagged, he said.
The proposal still needs approval from the full Assembly and the Senate as well as Gov. Phil Murphy before it would become law.
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Learn more about youth suicide rates as well as grant opportunities to prevent these tragedies: