Murphy unveils controversial new student MH support program

With the coronavirus pandemic contributing to the rising rates of depression and anxiety among kids, the Murphy administration has announced a statewide plan in New Jersey that would make mental wellness a priority in the classroom and identify and refer students in need of counseling services outside their school.

But in launching the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Network, the state would end a popular youth services program in June that has operated in 90 school districts since 1988. This program’s fierce defenders who helped protect it when the administration proposed cutting its funding two years ago are enlisting student graduates and lawmakers to preserve it once again.

They contend it has saved lives, and should exist alongside whatever the Murphy administration proposes.

Christine Norbut Beyer, the commissioner for the state Department of Children and Families, which would run the proposed network, says New Jersey could do so much better. The existing school based program serves only 25,000 to 30,000 students, about 2% of the entire 1.3 million school population, she said.

By taking the $30 million used for the limited school-based program to help fund statewide plan, Norbut Beyer envisions it could reach every student — through school assemblies, workshops, mentoring programs and for the students most in need of help, referrals to counseling off site.

“New Jersey, like the rest of the nation, is still reeling from the trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and emotional and behavorial challenges that may have been there before have been exacerbated dramatically,” Beyer said in a statement.

“According to a recent CDC report, nearly one in four young adults in the United States has been treated for mental health issues during the pandemic, and the US Surgeon General issued a report indicating more than 1 in 3 students reported feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness,” Norbut Beyer said. “Depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts are all on the rise. We are at a crisis point, and we need new tools and new strategies that reflect this new reality – that’s what the NJ4S proposal delivers.”    

With an overall price tag of about $48 million, the network would be operating at the start of the 2023-24 school year. It would consist of 15 hubs, which will serve one or more counties. Each hub will receive a budget of about $3.2 million to employ a director, an assistant director, support staff and mental health clinicians, according to the department. A panel of students, parents, school personnel, community leaders and representatives from social service would advise the hub on the services needed, the proposal said.

The hubs would provide three tiers or levels of intervention. Tier 1 would offer material for school assemblies and workshops to promote mental well-being and discourage disruptive behaviors like bullying. Tier 2 services would provide “early identification and focused prevention interventions” such as mentoring or small group sessions for students identified as “at risk” for behavorial or mental health issues. Tier 3 would connect students in need of evaluation and referral to counseling outside the school.

“The network will ensure that services are evidence-based, culturally competent, and available in a variety of spaces, both in schools and in communities, to meet the wide range of New Jersey’s diverse youth, recognizing their identities, preferences, and needs,” according to the proposal.

The existing school-based services programs would cease at the end of the current school year in June 2023, according to the proposal.

Supporters of the decades-old school based program are gearing up for a fight, enlisting legislators to help them, like they did successfully in 2020.

State Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, said he agrees with Norbut Beyer that mental health programs should be available in every school. But he has asked the commissioner to keep the status quo until the state can determine which programs are most effective and preserve them — at least until the hubs are fully integrated.

Gopal said he has asked the commissioner to continue funding the “high-performing programs for a few years until there is 100% confidence on the success of the hubs so no students are left behind in the process and no gaps happen in between.”

Children and Families spokesman Jason Butkowski confirmed Norbut Beyer spoke with Gopal “and welcomed his thoughts.”

“The department is open to receiving input from legislators, local leaders, school officials and parents about this new concept — this is why we made it available for public comment,” Butkowski said.

Five Republican legislators also emailed a letter to the commissioner last week in support of preserving the existing 90 programs.

School Based Youth Services “is a vital program that serves tens of thousands of students in all corners of our state” with services ranging from “mental health counseling, employment counseling, substance abuse education and prevention…and pregnancy prevention,” according to the Sept. 30 letter signed by the Republicans from Ocean County: state Sens. Robert Singer and James Holzapfel and Assemblymen Sean T. Kean, Gregory McGuckin, John Catalano and Edward Thomson.

“Please be advised we will not support elimination of the funding for (the program) in the FY 2024 state budget and we will urge our colleagues to adopt the same position,” the letter said.

Janel Gonzales, director of the School-Based Youth Services program at Pinelands Regional High School, said the community has come to rely on the many services she and her staff of six have provided to the community. She, too, doesn’t understand why successful programs like hers can’t survive.

“What sets School-Based apart is there are no financial barriers, no transportation barriers -- we are at a safe spot for kids and families,” Gonzales said. “If something is happening with a child, they don’t have to make a phone call to a hub and gets someone out. It’s immediate. There are meaningful connections day in and out.”

“Other schools are deserving of having additional supportive services,” Gonzales added. “But to just dismantle these programs that have served these communities up until this point is not fair and it is not just.”

The Department of Children and Families already oversees the child welfare system, the Division of Child Protection and Permanancy, as well as the Children’s System of Care, a managed care network of mental health services paid for through Medicaid.

The state has allotted a two-week comment period on the plan. Written responses may be emailed here.