Suicidal teens languishing in emergency rooms. Spiraling students waiting months for an appointment with a child psychiatrist. Increasingly younger children self-harming and attempting suicide.
The mental health crisis is only getting worse in New Jersey and its leaders must do everything they can to address it with urgency, experts and advocates told lawmakers Monday during a special hearing.
“New Jersey’s pediatric behavioral health system is overburdened and in crisis,” said Dr. Ramon Solhkhah, chair of the psychiatry and behavioral health department at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University.
I used to say that we were facing a tsunami of mental health issues. But I’ve changed that to say that this is the mental health equivalent of climate change. This is the new normal, and we must act.”
The state Senate Education Committee convened the special panel amid growing concern about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on children and teens, who were already reporting alarming rates of depression and anxiety even before COVID-19.
Experts told lawmakers New Jersey needs more inpatient psychiatric beds for children and adolescents, more counselors and clinicians in schools, and more child and adolescent psychiatrists. The state must also explore options to improve parity in insurance coverage for mental health and to promote critical resources that are largely unknown among parents, they said.
Much of the testimony echoed concerns mental health experts raised in “Saving Charlie,” a special report published by NJ Advance on March 6 about a suicidal teenager in Central Jersey and his family’s struggles to find help.
While New Jersey’s mental health care system is stronger than many other states, significant gaps remain, advocates said.
“I would say if this were one of my children who needed help, I would not want to put them into this system,” testified Amy Kennedy, education director for Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit focused on improving health care.
Teenage depression and anxiety had already become a full-scale public health crisis in the decade before the pandemic, contributing to a disturbing rise in suicides.
Between 2016 and 2020, the number of American children ages 3-17 diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29%, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The number of kids diagnosed with depression in the same age group increased by 27%.
Suicides among people 10-24 increased 47% nationally between 2007-2009 and 2016-2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite having one of the nation’s lowest suicide rates, New Jersey reported 291 deaths in that age group between 2016-2018, a 39% rise from the previous decade.
COVID-19 ushered in “a parallel pandemic” of loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression, behavioral challenges and substance use, said Christine Norbut Beyer, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.
Those stressors have only exacerbated the crisis, she told lawmakers.
New Jersey’s Children’s System of Care received a record-high 14,698 calls this February, the highest volume since its inception, she said. Trying to manage that surging demand is unsustainable, she said.
“This is an issue across the entire system — the Children’s System of Care, our hospitals, children’s crisis intervention services, schools,” she said. “We’re all experiencing increased demand for services and supports at a time when, nationally, we are facing a crippling workforce shortage in the children’s mental health arena.”
The state must do more to help children before they reach crisis level, advocates said. And families must be made aware of the services that exist so they don’t feel like they are navigating a crisis alone.
For example, many pediatricians can connect patients directly with a child and adolescent psychiatrist through a collaborative pilot program funded by the state, Solhkhah said. And New Jersey offers a mobile response team that visits the caller’s house within one hour, screens a child and determines if they are in immediate danger, Norbut Beyer said.
Advocates said many of the needed improvements, including recruiting and producing more child psychiatrists, cannot happen overnight.
But the state needs to act now with an eye toward helping as many young people as soon as possible, Kennedy said.
“There is no time to wait,” she said. “We can’t wait till next September. We can’t wait till May is Mental Health Month. All of this work that you are so gracious to hear about today is important to institute now.”