One out of every 10 New Jersey children has been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, according to the latest report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Garden State performs rather well compared to other states in the 2022 Kids Count Data Book, but advocates suggest more must be done to protect child health and well-being.

According to the report, nearly 168,000 Garden State kids aged 3 to 17 had a diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression as of 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. That's up from 7.6% of kids, or more than 130,000, in 2016.

"The pandemic has had a profound effect on the mental state of New Jersey's children," said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. "Regularly, we hear the struggles of families and children who are combating anxiety and depression caused and magnified by a global crisis."

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New Jersey's most recently approved budget includes $50 million in federal funds to strengthen youth mental health supports, the organization noted. On July 16, 988 launched as a quick dialing code for those in need of mental health support.

"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," Zalkind said.

In response to the report, ACNJ called on policymakers to respond by developing programs and policies to ease mental health burdens on children and their families. Among the suggestions — schools should increase the presence of social workers and other mental health professionals, and mental health care should be trauma-informed and culturally relevant to the child's life.

According to the report, New Jersey continues to post strong numbers related to education, health, and family and community. The Garden State ranks sixth in the nation for child health and well-being, recording a No. 1 ranking for education, and No. 9 ranking for children's health.

Prioritizing mental health is imperative as children head back to school, according to UnitedHealthcare. Dr. David Britchkow, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare of NJ and PA, encourages parents to schedule well-child visits for their children.

"It's important for the parents to note any behavioral changes that they've seen and bring that up to their pediatrician," Britchkow added.

Those changes, he said, can include persistent sadness, avoiding social interactions, irritability, shifts in eating and sleeping habits, and slipping academic performance. Issues may even manifest themselves as headaches or stomachaches.

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