New Jersey’s public colleges and research universities can apply for some of the $15 million allocated for mental health services by the state as students continue to face rising rates of suicide and depression — a trend widely believed to have worsened during the pandemic.
The funds come from the American Rescue Plan and are also available to independent colleges that receive state aid, said the Murphy administration.
The plan provided the third and largest distribution of COVID-19 relief funds to states in 2021 to address the pandemic’s setbacks.
In New Jersey, another $10 million from the fund will be used to set up free statewide telehealth counseling services available to all college students.
Colleges generally welcomed the news about the funding, which will be awarded based on student enrollment. Bergen Community College in Paramus has seen an uptick in student mental health needs during the pandemic and will be applying for the funds, administrators said.
“I believe every school, hospital and private therapist out there did [see an uptick]. Our first semester back on campus [fall 2021], we had a 30% increase in first-time personal counseling appointments,” said Jennifer Migliorino-Reyes, assistant vice president of student affairs.
State agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called attention to a mental health “emergency” among youth and schoolchildren in 2020, citing steadily rising rates of suicide between 2010 and 2020. By 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 24, said the American Academy of Pediatrics. And New Jersey was one of five states out of 14 that saw an absolute increase in the number of adolescent suicides in 2020, reported JAMA Pediatrics, though it is still unclear whether these are long-term effects.
Undergraduate enrollments dropped by 560,000, a 3.6% decline, in 2020, compared with the year before, reported a 2021 study by the federal government on the impact of COVID-19 on students. The numbers were highest among community colleges that disproportionately serve students with the fewest resources. Students were “leaving higher education — or not entering at all, losing jobs, taking fewer classes, juggling caregiving responsibilities, and concerned about their financial well-being and work opportunities.”
There is no question that this is a good use of funds that could save lives, said Sheila Reynertson, a senior policy analyst at the think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, but is the government prepared to sustain it beyond December 2026, when the federal relief money expires?
“The need for mental health funding will long outlast these federal dollars, so lawmakers must be prepared to maintain this investment with state funding in future years,” said Reynertson, whose organization also publishes research advocating for vulnerable and minority populations.
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Another question is whether the state has a plan to track how effective these programs will be and whether they will lead to other financial obligations. The Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, which manages these grants, will track accountability through a detailed grant application and semiannual progress reports filed by colleges. However, outside experts like Reynertson have called for more transparency and public input into how the state prioritizes and allocates relief money, saying there should be “clawback provisions” for money that is misused.
The grant funding comes from a one-time provision called Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds in the American Rescue Plan. Public health is one possible use of the funds laid out by the federal government. The funds can also be spent on recovering lost revenue for government services, essential worker pay, and investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. The Murphy administration has allocated large sums of relief money in these areas, such as $300 million to water infrastructure and $170 million to home lead paint remediation.
State departments received a total of $55 million for 2023 for youth mental health, and its programs support Gov. Phil Murphy’s “Strengthening Youth Mental Health” initiative, said Christi Peace, a spokesperson for the governor’s office. Murphy adopted this initiative in July as a platform after he was named chair of the National Governors…