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Combating mental health crisis for the young is a pandemic priority, by Amy Kennedy

Combating mental health crisis for the young is a pandemic priority, by Amy Kennedy

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As we approach the final few months of the second school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing mental health crisis amongst children and young adults is more acute than ever.

Educators, administrators, families and students are now facing the long-term economic and social impacts of online and distance learning and the huge logistical task of implementing in-person learning in a way that maximizes and prioritizes safety. These are challenges that would have been inconceivable a year ago.

All of these considerations need to be discussed and solved, but at the same time we cannot let children’s mental health become a secondary priority. We must recognize the fact that this pandemic has caused kids and young adults to experience trauma. And, that many of them were already experiencing trauma from racism, poverty, food insecurity or abuse.

Schools are much more than centers of learning. For many kids, schools serve as a safe place and maybe the only place where students can get support for their physical, emotional and mental health. During my many years as a teacher here in New Jersey, I saw first-hand how a child’s mental health and mental health literacy impacts their ability to learn and grow — not only in the classroom, but in life.

I also spent a lot of time during my campaign for Congress last year speaking with families and educators about how children, teenagers and young adults were struggling with distance learning while trying to cope with rising fear and anxiety about their own health and the well-being of the people they love.

That is why I applaud Gov. Murphy and the Department of Education for creating the Road Forward initiative to help combat the very real mental health impact of COVID-19 on New Jersey’s students, educators, families and communities. This unprecedented investment will go a long way toward combatting learning loss and tackling mental health challenges in partnership with educators and school communities.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five students ages 13-18 has a diagnosable mental illness. Further, there is both data-driven and anecdotal evidence to show that the increased isolation, additional screen time and escalating fear and anxiety due to the pandemic have created a perfect storm of social-emotional issues. Effective School Solutions (ESS) conducted a survey in October 2020 in which 83 percent of respondents reported observing moderate to severe mental health challenges with students. Unfortunately, yet predictably, ESS also found that 84 percent of educators surveyed experienced moderate to significant mental health challenges.

The Road Forward initiative makes $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds available to school districts across New Jersey to be used to provide academic and mental health supports and interventions for students and educators. This includes a $30 million mental health grant that will help school districts develop a comprehensive and tailored set of mental health supports and services tailored to their students’ specific needs.

This locally driven approach allows each school district to utilize programs and invest their resources in a way that will best serve the unique needs of their students, educators and community. A big part of what makes us “Jersey strong” is our diversity — this initiative recognizes that a one size fits all approach is not the best way to address mental health needs or serve children and their families.

By supporting educators and working with community partners to create robust mental health systems within schools, it is possible to identify students’ needs and intervene early, while neuroplasticity is at its peak. Through strategies like social-emotional learning and integrated systems of care that meet students where they are, we have the power to improve educational, emotional and health outcomes for all kids.

Much has been said about ensuring that the state recovers from this pandemic both economically and physically. Surely, the mental and emotional health of our kids and young adults is equally important.

Former public-school teacher and mental health advocate Amy Kennedy, of Brigantine, is education director of the Kennedy Forum. She was the 2020 Democratic candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s Second District.

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