Are enough college staff trained on mental health? NJ bill says no
A proposed law to expand mental health training and awareness on college campuses has unanimous support from New Jersey lawmakers.
Now it's up to Gov. Phil Murphy whether the bill becomes a reality for the Garden State.
Under a measure that cleared both houses of the New Jersey Legislature, institutions of higher education would have to regularly assess the campus environment for elements that may be used in a suicide attempt, such as rooftops, windows and balconies. That assessment is included in an overall mental health response plan that would be required of colleges under the bill as well.
The measure also includes specific mental health training for students who serve as resident assistants in college dormitories. Four-year schools have to receive annual training on the signs of depression, warning signs associated with college student suicide, how to respond to students in crisis, and referral to campus resources.
The proposal builds upon measures already in place under the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act, named after a New Jersey high school track star who took her own life as a college freshman. Because of the Act, students have 24/7 access to mental health experts who are specifically trained in reducing suicides.
Under the new measure, these trained individuals will have to annually train staff and faculty on signs of depression.
“Today’s college students face enormous pressures that were exacerbated by the disruption to their lives from the pandemic," said Sen. Joe Cryan, D-Union, a sponsor of the legislation. "This bill will shore up mental health services for all students, provide more training for campus personnel to identify potential cases of mental distress, and allow students to get proper treatment when and if they need it."
According to Siobhan Power, chair of the New Jersey chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, many people experience mental health distress for the first time in their lives during their college-age years. At that time, they're away from the community in which they grew up, and far from family and loved ones.
"Making sure that they have resources they can access in this new environment is really, really important," Power said.
But having resources on campus isn't enough if distressed students aren't aware of them, she said.
As part of the bill, higher-ed institutions would also be required to conduct an annual public awareness campaign on campus that's designed to reduce any stigma associated with seeking mental health help, and highlight the mental health services available on and off campus.