Insider NJ

Legislators, Educators, Students And Advocates Endorse Program Addressing Youth Addiction And Mental Health Crisis

Insider NJ — September 24, 2019

Bordentown — State Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-7) joined educators, experts, students and advocates for a press conference and roundtable today on the report: Youth at Risk: Substance Misuse and Mental Health...The most important questions New Jersey schools can ask (CLICK HERE for full report). The panel discussed findings on how the school-based Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) program can help schools identify and reduce student substance misuse and mental health issues early on, before more serious problems develop. Youth substance misuse, mental illness and suicide have reached alarming levels. The annual fatal overdose rate for 15 to 24-year-olds was more than 9 percent between 2006 and 2015.

"Too often these problems are addressed too late, and too often schools handle substance misuse as a disciplinary matter that leads to students being expelled or suspended," said Maura Collinsgru, Health Care Program Director for New Jersey Citizen Action. "SBIRT confronts problems as early as possible, and not just among students whose substance misuse or mental issue is apparent. It's a preventative program that will help both save lives and improve academic outcomes."

New Jersey schools are required to provide staff training and establish programs to identify, intervene in, and prevent substance use. SBIRT is an objective, evidence-based tool with a proven track record in other states that can help schools meet this requirement with all their students. The program engages students with an initial screening, a conversation between a trusted, trained adult and a young person with the goal of understanding if misuse has occurred or if the youth is at risk of misusing substances. For students who show moderate to high risk of substance misuse there is a round of deeper interaction. Those determined to be actively misusing substances and demonstrating addictive behaviors are referred to treatment.

"I strongly support utilizing SBIRT as a tool to help our children who are battling mental health and substance abuse issue," said Assemblywoman Murphy. "We have to work on prevention and intervention to protect our students as youth suicide rates increase and the opioid crisis rages on. Ensuring that our teachers are equipped with the best tools to help our children is critical. Students spend most of their days at school, it is crucial that teachers are able to recognize the signs of abuse and mental health issues early on. Using SBIRT will give our teachers all the tools they need to look out for New Jersey's children."

"New Jersey Citizen Action has been a lead advocate and proponent of SBIRT for good reason," said State Senator Joseph Vitale (D-19). "This program is proven to identify students who may be at risk for addiction in a way that is both confidential and compassionate. I look forward to continuing to work with Citizen Action to see SBIRT implemented in our schools in New Jersey, and thank them for the work they have done so far. SBIRT is a key tool in preventing drug and alcohol abuse, and could help us save generations of kids from addiction.

"The students with us today are, of course, our future," said Dan Meara, policy expert and author of Youth at Risk report. "What could be of greater importance than safeguarding that future. SBIRT helps us do just that by identifying potential substance or mental health problem early on. It gives students the chance to talk about a problem that, deep down, most want to divulge and get help with."

Under proposed legislation, SBIRT would be implemented universally in a school, ensuring students in need are not overlooked, normalizing health screenings, and minimizing the influence that individual biases have on the population being screened. SBIRT requires training but not licensing, making staffing easier for schools. And SBIRT's cost is minimal compared with its potential benefits; it improves health outcomes, helps keep Medicaid spending down, and by focusing on prevention and screening could save up to seven times what the state spends on law enforcement and criminal justice costs.

"This report roadmaps a more compassionate response to helping youth at risk for substance abuse, particularly youth of color," said Rev. Charles Boyer of Salvation and Social Justice. "It is yet another answer to how we end harmful zero tolerance policies."

"It was a WOW moment when I learned about SBIRT a few years ago!" said Barbara Kauffman, Director of Prevention Services, Morris County Prevention is Key. "I thought finally we have a proven early intervention tool that can motivate kids to think about their substance use and address it early on to prevent addiction later. I'm excited now to offer SBIRT to schools in Morris County that will partner in confronting youth substance abuse."

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