New Jersey taps federal funds for mental health programs

(The Center Square) – New Jersey is tapping into federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds to expand health care services amid “sharp increases” in mental health issues among young adults.

A new state grant program will dole out $16 million to colleges and universities that receive state funding to help them improve screening and treatment for mental health issues among students.

Gov. Phil Murphy said the funds will pay for “critical initiatives” at the state’s universities and colleges to help address a rise in mental health needs.

“With sharp increases in the rates of depression, anxiety, and stress among youth in New Jersey and around the nation, it is clear many young people are struggling right now,” he said in a statement. “We must do everything in our power to support youth mental health as we emerge from the pandemic and look towards the future.”

The bulk of the funding will be distributed to higher education institutions to pay for expanding mental health services for students. Funding for each eligible college will be based on a formula that factors student enrollment. At least $1 million will be available in grants for professional development programs that focus on reaching “diverse” student bodies.

Money for the program comes from the state’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, which were funneled into the state’s fiscal year 2023 budget.

While young people were spared the worst health effects of the pandemic, their mental health was a different story.

State-mandated lockdowns, school closures, and restrictions on social gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus, coupled with a lack of access to in-person services, exacerbated a mental health treatment gap for children, according to medical experts. Low-income and minority children were disproportionately affected.

Last year, a coalition of groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a warning that the youth mental health crisis has become a “national emergency.”

A 2021 survey of New Jersey students found more than 70% of those who responded said their level of stress and anxiety was higher than before the pandemic, state officials said.

An estimated 72,000 students ages 12 to 17 are depressed, according to a fact sheet from the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New Jersey. But more than 61% of them didn’t receive mental health care in the last year, the group said.

Education Secretary Brian K. Bridges said addressing mental health is “critical” to “students’ overall health, wellness, and success.”

“Students’ mental health may impact their academic progress, including retention and on-time graduation, particularly for those from historically underserved backgrounds,” he said. “These grants will help our institutions deliver high-quality mental health services to all students and ensure that no student is turned away in their time of need.”

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