Successfully Incorporating Mental Health into New Jersey Schools

Over the past decade, students aged 12-17 have experienced a 59 percent increase in depression and emotional disorders. In light of that, it is increasingly important for New Jersey schools to take a proactive approach to mental health.

Under a new law, New Jersey schools must incorporate mental health into their health education programs. However, this is just one of schools’ growing legal obligations regarding students’ emotional health. 

Importance of Social and Emotional Learning

Schools can play a vital role in fostering student mental health. While physical education is part of the traditional school curriculum, mental health is not. Even so, studies consistently show that social and emotional learning is equally as important. Studies also show that addressing children’s’ mental health is more important today than ever. Take into consideration the following statistics:

  • In the average American classroom, there will be at least one student with a significant mental health impairment, such as depression, anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or a psychotic disorder.
  • Nearly 50 percent of children will have a diagnosable mental illness at some point before they turn 18. 
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24. 
  • 90 percent of those who died by suicide had an underlying mental illness. 
  • Half of the individuals living with mental illness experience onset by the age 14 and 75 percent by the age of 24. 

New Jersey’s New Mental Health Requirements

Schools also have certain legal obligations, such as identifying, assessing and providing special education services to students with a mental disability; protecting students from harassment/bullying; protecting students from self-injury; and crisis intervention.

In August, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation into law mandating that schools incorporate mental health into the curriculum. Under Senate Bill 2861, a school district must “ensure that its health education programs for students in grades kindergarten through 12 recognize the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and the relation of physical and mental health so as to enhance student understanding, attitudes, and behaviors that promote health, well-being, and human dignity.”  

“Educating students about mental health prioritizes approaches like social and emotional learning programs that give students the necessary skills to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, and make responsible decisions,” Education Commissioner, Lamont O. Repollet, stated. “It’s an important step toward building positive school climates and supportive learning environments for all of our students.”

Under the new law, instruction in mental health must be adapted to the age and understanding of the students and must include, as appropriate, information on substance abuse. Mental health instruction must also be incorporated as part of the district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education.  

The new law directs the State Board of Education to review and update the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education to ensure the incorporation of instruction in mental health in an appropriate place in the curriculum for students in grades kindergarten through 12.  In its review, the State board must consult with mental health experts including, but not limited to, representatives from the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Department of Human Services.

Guidance for New Jersey Schools

For New Jersey schools, it can be challenging to address the myriad of issues related to student mental health. The attorneys of the Scarinci Hollenbeck Education Law Groupare prepared to assist schools in meeting their obligations, including special education plans, curriculum requirements, educator training, anti-bullying policies and crisis intervention plans.

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