Bipartisan Legislators Tout Student Mental Health and Substance Abuse Initiative

Bipartisan Legislators Tout Student Mental Health and Substance Abuse Initiative

On Wednesday, NJ Citizen Action (NJCA) hosted legislators, school officials, students and advocates discussing effective mental health screenings in NJ schools, which can be viewed on Facebook. One approach, the evidence-based SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, Referral to Treatment), has been proposed as a statewide initiative in bill S508/A3158, introduced by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-19) and co-sponsored by Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-25). SBIRT is currently being tested in two pilot programs, and has been widely successful in nearby Massachusetts where it was implemented across the state.

“We’re faced with an unprecedented rise in students struggling with mental health and substance use amid the pandemic,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-19). “While we’ve taken an important 1st step to make depression screenings available in a few schools across New Jersey next year, our work is not done. We must invest the resources needed to make evidenced-based tools like SBIRT available in all districts so we can stem the growing tide of addiction and the mental health crisis currently challenging our students and schools.”

What makes school-based SBIRT both effective and practical to implement is that it only requires the training of school staff to administer the screening, which would identify warning signs of mental health or substance abuse issues. Students exhibiting these signs would receive a brief intervention, and if deemed appropriate referred for proactive treatment.

“The majority of individuals who develop substance abuse disorders start using before the age of 18. This is why it is extremely important to implement substance abuse screenings in New Jersey high schools. By doing so, we can help young people avoid the destructive consequences of drug and alcohol misuse and addiction,” commented Sen. Anthony M. Bucco (R-25). “The most effective way to do this would be to employ the SBIRT program. This evidence-based approach will identify students who use alcohol and other drugs at risky levels and help reduce and prevent related health consequences, disease, and accidents.”

Substance misuse, mental health, and suicide among young people have reached alarming levels across NJ and the nation. In 2018, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that opioid overdoses claimed the lives of 197 young people. By the end of 2020, the CDC and others were reporting that the latest numbers suggest a steep acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic, and we know young people are among those struggling.

“Depression affects over 2.8 million young people and is a risk factor that can lead to substance abuse, social isolation, and suicide,” added Asm. Herb Conaway (D-7). “Most teens who experience depression suffer from more than one episode. Unfortunately, less than one-third of teenagers seek help. Mental health issues are often very treatable and are as important as someone’s physical health. We must do more to identify and refer those who are suffering for help. Our children deserve to live healthy, meaningful lives.”

9 out of 10 adults diagnosed with substance use disorders started using before the age of 18, and research shows the younger someone is when they start using substances the more likely they are to develop an addiction. School-based screenings can intervene to stem the growing tide of addiction and mental health issues among NJ youth.

“Making evidence-based substance use prevention accessible to children is crucial,” said Courtney Chelo, Assistant Director for Government Relations at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children. “Schools are an ideal setting for this work because they are already equipped with highly skilled school health teams who can be trained to use these preventative tools to establish a meaningful dialogue with students about substance use. School SBIRT is a smart investment in prevention and early intervention that will save money, but more importantly, will save lives.”

Student mental health has been a top priority for many NJ leaders. Over the course of this year and last, the Legislature passed, and the Governor signed A970/S2259, introduced by Asm. Conaway, which established a Dept. of Education grant program and paved the way for new approaches like SBIRT.

Morghan Blair, a 10th grade student at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, reflected on her own experiences: “Safe spaces and alternative help strategies are key to helping the youth with mental health and substance abuse going forward in our post Covid world.”

NJ schools are already tasked with training staff to identify and intervene on substance abuse, but historically those interventions have often reflected a harmful, zero-tolerance approach, leading to disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and expulsions. This strategy has been shown to be not only ineffective but counterproductive. Today, everyone from policymakers, school personnel, mental health and substance use professionals, to parents and students themselves agree that more positive solutions and support are needed.


Nell Geiger, LPC Bordentown SAC Counselor: “SBIRT is simply asking direct substance abuse and Mental health questions to an adolescent who wants to talk, it’s pure, honest conversation starters that allow our youth to share confidentially, let’s just ask, their voices need to be heard”


Rev. Sammy Arroyo, Salvation and Social Justice: “Zero Tolerance policies in our schools harm our students, especially students of color.  We need to move away from punitive policies to restorative practices that see and lift up the humanity in our youth.”


Cristina Puri, Morris County SAC Counselor: “Implementing an SBIRT program in New Jersey schools is a vital component of addressing our students’ mental health needs. This tool allows us the opportunity to offer supports to students before they start to show the impact of mental health difficulties or substance misuse, such as poor grades or behavioral changes. As we know the earlier that you can address an issue, the more successful your outcome is likely to be.”

New Jersey Citizen Action is a statewide advocacy and social service organization that advocates for social, racial and economic justice for all while also meeting the pressing needs of low and moderate income New Jerseyans through education and direct service.

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