Some education groups and parents are raising concerns about a plan to require yearly depression screenings for New Jersey middle and high school students: What good is a test if schools and the overall mental health system lack the resources to help?

Legislation that would require yearly depression screenings for middle and high school students is halfway to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, after its approval by the Assembly last Thursday. It heads to the Senate, which approved the idea in January, only to see it pocket-vetoed by Murphy.

Tamaya Simone said most school districts are understaffed in regard to mental health professionals already and questions how they’ll be able to handle depression screenings – especially in the coronavirus era.

“Kids are going to be coming back stressed out. School staff are going to coming back stressed out. Schools are already in fiscal trouble. They’re already dealing with a health crisis and a financial crisis,” Simone said.

The screening would have to be conducted in a way that allows for real-time evaluation of the results and intervention by a licensed mental health professional that same day.

Aisha Battle, a parent of a child with a learning disability, said she worries about false positives, especially when students are trying to adjust to the school disruptions caused by COVID.

“There’s a shortage of mental health care providers and school counselors that are in the school, and I feel that that money would be better appropriated towards other things that are going to be needed during this time,” Battle said.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said the cost is estimated at come to $2.50 a child, which he says is well worth it.

“Given what we know and expect are increasing rates of mental illness related to this pandemic, the need for screening is actually greater than it was before last year when this bill was first passed,” Conaway said.

Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said the limited capacity of school staffs to handle mental health was already a concern pre-pandemic – and that the things such employees see will get worse.

“We anticipate that these issues are only going to be magnified by the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic and what it has brought on students and families,” Lamon said.

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Francine Pfeffer, associate director of government relation for the New Jersey Education Association, said the bill directs administrators to tell parents when they need to seek out help for their kids. She said more appropriate follow-through and mental health professionals in schools are needed.

“And that’s money that somehow we need to find because kids are in crisis right now,” Pfeffer said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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