Amy Kennedy received a call this week that a former student of hers had died after a drug overdose.

The funeral will be the third in the past six months for students she taught while she was a public school teacher, Kennedy said Monday as she urged lawmakers to take immediate steps to address the current mental health crisis.

“There is no time to wait. We can’t wait until next September. We can’t wait until May, when it’s Mental Health Month,” said Kennedy, education director of the Kennedy Forum and a member of the national board for Mental Health America.

Kennedy was among the experts who spoke to the Senate Education Committee Monday, pleading with them to approve more funding for school mental health programs, attract more child psychiatrists to the state, and clarify the responsibilities of school counselors.

School administrators pointed to the social isolation of the pandemic as a major contributor to the significant mental health challenges they’ve witnessed.  Two years away from school took away daily face-to-face connection, social activities like sports and clubs, and safe places for kids struggling at home.

Dr. Ramon Solhkhah said the pandemic exacerbated already concerning statistics about mental health in children and teens. One in five teenagers lives with several mental health issues, and suicide is the second leading cause of death, he said, citing pressures from social media, cyberbullying, and now, the pandemic.

Solhkhah, a psychiatrist, argued the state needs to increase funding for mental health programs by as much as $70 million. Additional funding would help identify disorders early and bring down rates of suicide attempts and substance abuse, he said.

“I always say if this were one of my children who needed help, I would not have put them into this system,” said Kennedy, who has five children attending Brigantine public schools.

Kennedy noted school nurses screen students for physical issues like scoliosis often, but “we’ve ignored their brains,” leading to trouble with anxiety and poor decision-making skills.

The role of school counselors needs to be redefined, according to Jessica Smedley, president of the New Jersey School Counselor Association.

Smedley called counselors the “frontline mental health practitioners in schools,” but she noted there are no current state standards, so it’s up to …….


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