Advocates Urge Advancement of Student Screening for Mental Health and Substance Misuse Program

State Senator Vitale and Assemblywoman Murphy Champion Legislation to Deliver Early Intervention Services to Students at Risk

September 29, 2022 – Trenton, NJ – On Thursday morning, statewide advocacy organization NJ Citizen Action held a press conference to call for the passage of S298/A2504 establishing a universal school screening program to identify students at risk of mental health or substance misuse challenges. They were joined by the bill’s primary sponsors, State Senator Joseph Vitale (D-19) and Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-7), along with staff and students from Bordentown Regional High School, where a successful pilot program recently concluded.

“Student mental health and substance use are among our most pressing societal issues. They affect families and children all across our State, reaching all of its ZIP codes. Universal screening in schools, as reporting from the various pilot programs has shown, can help us ensure that no student falls through the cracks and that those who need it will get timely access to treatment,” said Sen. Joe Vitale, Chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. “I’m excited to renew the conversation around universal screening in schools, learn from the pilot districts that have admirably taken it upon themselves to implement such programs, and work with our education partners to make a universal program the reality.”

“Passage of this bill is crucial in securing a safe and healthy future for our students and children from the dangerous effects of addiction/substance abuse. With addiction and suicide being so rampant in our children it is more crucial than ever to pass a law to get students the help they need early on, rather than just reacting to these problems once tragedy strikes,” said Asw. Carol Murphy. “I am committed to protecting our children from substance abuse and this is why I sponsor A2504, to help students before it is too late. With screenings and early intervention, we can stop addiction before it ever starts.”

The program, known as SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment), is an evidenced-based, early intervention, cost-effective tool schools can use to give students the support they need and make sure no one is missed. Screenings are administered by trained school-based personnel, are confidential and only given with parental consent. Students indicating a problem would receive follow-up and referral to treatment if required.

“New Jersey youth are in urgent need of comprehensive mental health and substance misuse support services, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the issue,” said Laura Waddell, NJ Citizen Action Health Care Program Director. “Schools are best positioned to reach those students who need help the most, and with the SBIRT program students have a safe place to both voice their concerns and access the counseling or treatment they need.”

A pilot program for SBIRT was recently concluded at Bordentown Regional High School and demonstrated the need for these support programs. Of the 100 Bordentown students who were screened, just over half (51) received a brief-intervention and slightly under a quarter (23) were referred for further counseling services. An SBIRT in Schools Implementation Guide is now available for districts so schools can reference a step-by-step instruction on how to stand up a program to meet the needs of their students.

“I have seen the changes in student behavior over the years especially during and after the pandemic. Youth drug use and mental health problems were already increasing at alarming rates before February 2020. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, these issues have reached tragic levels,” said Robert Walder, Principal of Bordentown Regional High School. “Using SBIRT universally in school settings is an effective way to reach students broadly and preventatively, in order to ensure no child is missed nor punished, when issues of mental health or substance misuse occur.”

The SBIRT program is also cost-effective and can save taxpayers exponentially more money via preventative measures. Comprehensive screening can be implemented for as little as 1 percent of New Jersey school security budgets, and every dollar invested in this effective approach is estimated to save states and local government up to $18 by reducing medical, justice system, and other costs.

“As a SAC, Student Assistance Counselor in school it’s an amazing gift to sit across from a student who trusts the process and speaks their truth. We simply become the channel towards change. Change can only occur if the person is willing to take action for themselves,” said Nell Geiger, SAC Counselor at Bordentown Regional High School. “If we can help one young person make better decisions towards a healthier tomorrow, then screenings are worth it”

In 2018, there were 197 youth overdoses in New Jersey; in 2019, 36 percent of NJ high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless, while nearly 15 percent of NJ high school students seriously considered attempting suicide. Rates of substance misuse – which often co-occurs with mental illness and increases the risk for suicide – were also high. In 2019, 30 percent of NJ high school students reported currently drinking alcohol, 15 percent reported binge drinking, 20 percent reported cannabis use, and another 1-2 percent reported using cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and methamphetamines in the previous month.

“For hundreds of thousands of New Jersey students like me and my friends, school is where we socialize, grow as young adults, and form important bonds with our peers and teachers,” said Emeline Kovac, a junior at Bordentown Regional High School. “With so much changing in our lives, it makes a world of a difference to have a program like SBIRT so we have someone to talk to. Sometimes all it takes is asking if we need help, in a safe, private space.”