NJ children facing anxiety, depression ‘at unprecedented levels,’ new report finds

A woman in a beige shirt sits across from young man in a sweater while holding a pen and notepad.
A new report shows children in New Jersey are struggling with anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels. Advocates urge state lawmakers to improve access to mental health services. (SDI Productions / Getty Images)

As Newark and other school districts prepare for another school year marked by an urgent need to expand and enhance mental health services for students, a new report shows how dire the crisis is among children in New Jersey and across the country.

Children in the state and nationally are in the midst of a mental health crisis, “struggling with anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels,” according to the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book released Monday by Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit.

In New Jersey, 10.7% of children struggled with anxiety and depression in 2020 — up from 7.6% in 2016, the report found. Similarly, on the national level, that number went from roughly 9% in 2016 to 12% in 2020, the report stated.

The annual study also considered state and national data related to economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors, such as children living in high-poverty areas.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound effect on all communities, early research, including this report, is showing disparities with mental health challenges based on those varying factors.

“It’s very hard for a person, especially a child, to engage in counseling or other mental health services if they don’t know if they have a place to live or if they have enough food,” said Mary Coogan, vice president of Advocate for Children of New Jersey. The nonprofit partners with the national foundation in releasing the annual data.

One of the report’s recommendations for policymakers to address the youth mental health pandemic is to use federal pandemic relief money to help give children better access to mental health service providers.

The state’s 2023 budget allocates more than $50 million in American Rescue Plan funding to “strengthen youth mental health supports” by improving access to services, increasing awareness and resilience-building, and providing support and professional development in communities, schools, and college campuses.

The budget also increases the pipeline for behavioral health care workers, a press release from the governor’s office states, though details on that effort were sparse.

“Though we are encouraged to see that the state’s budget has allocated federal dollars toward strengthening youth mental health programs, more must be done,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Programs such as mental health services play a critical role in moving the state forward past COVID-19, but we need to do more to address the shortage of providers for mental health services.” 

In the 2020-21 school year, the average student-to-counselor ratio in the state was 339 students to one counselor — above the recommended ratio of 250 to one, the report stated.

In Newark, the average that school year was 483 students to one counselor.

“It’s a nearly impossible task for that one school counselor,” Coogan said. “That means an unknown number of students’ needs are getting missed and the anxiety or depression they have can get exacerbated.”

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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