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Piperno, Eulner Release Statement Condemning the Defunding of Student Mental Health Services

On October 6, the Governor announced his proposal for a new network for the mental health services provided for students in the 2023-2024 school year. Under the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services (NJ4S) model, regionalized "hub" networks would be operated by the state Department of Children and Families. However, school leaders and mental health providers say they feel "ambushed." We, too, think it is seriously misguided, a detriment to the well-being of our students, and a policy disaster to further defund our school districts' mental health services.

The statistics show that our children's mental health is in a full-scale public health emergency. Defunding our state's long-running school-based youth services program will only harm those in crisis. The World Health Organization reports a 25% increase in loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression, behavioral challenges, and substance use. And according to the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, one in five teenagers now lives with one or more of these mental health issues.

Who are we to jeopardize the well-being of our students when programs like The Source, a Red Bank Regional High School school-based youth services program, have been building bonds between students in need and the community for 23 years? Why are we deterring feedback from our schools, who are on the front lines of this issue and not sufficiently consulted? How are we supposed to give young people the help they need when youth services professionals know they cannot assist them effectively under this new model?

Additionally, we have serious concerns about the current state of the Department of Children and Families and its ability to confront these issues. Their Child Protection and Permanency Division won't investigate or provide services in potential child abuse or neglect cases involving minors and non-direct caregivers. Now, we are to entrust them to facilitate statewide mental health programs requiring an annual $48 Million operating budget.

It is admirable and undoubtedly commendable to offer more standardized care and cast a wider-reaching net to combat the serious and exacerbated mental health challenges confronting our students. Still, the cost of losing valuable and high-performing services already adopted in a one size fits all approach is dangerous to program beneficiaries. Moreover, the program will not be able to provide the immediate, hands-on assistance often required that counselors currently can.

Our colleagues, especially ourselves, are frequently critical of this administration and the legislature's majority party for their track record of rushing legislation in the name of reformation or progress without considering the consequences. This time, it is no different. We remain fierce advocates for mental health and will continue to fight for fully funded mental and behavioral health services in our communities. And we urge Governor Murphy to let our equitable, inclusive, and successful school-based youth services program continue personalized, community-based care that our students have come to trust.

Yours in service,

Marilyn and Kim

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