Screening schoolchildren for depression and anxiety will lead to earlier diagnoses and needed treatment, Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) told a gathering of behavioral health care professionals at Rutgers University.

Conaway, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee in the New Jersey General Assembly, said he is working to convince legislators that asking all students in 7th through 12th grades a few questions may reveal signs of depression and anxiety and lead to more young people getting help earlier.

“We can change the lives of people who otherwise might go for decades without a diagnosis,” said Conaway, a medical doctor who also is a graduate of Rutgers Law School in Camden. Conaway cosponsored a bill introduced last year to adopt the screenings in schools. The screenings could also help reduce the risk of suicide among young people, he said, noting suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers between the ages of 12 and 19.

Conaway discussed the pressures young people face at the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare’s Behavioral Health Services within General Healthcare Systems Committee fall leadership forum. The gathering was hosted by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC).

Rutgers Today - Frank Ghinassi, UBHC president and CEO
Frank Ghinassi, UBHC president and CEO, says the fall forum provides an opportunity for health professionals to discuss the impact of legislation and policy on behavioral health care. Nick Romanenko/Rutgers UniversityHigh Res

Frank Ghinassi, UBHC president and CEO, said the forum gathers behavioral health care professionals to compare work on initiatives and discuss the impact of legislation and policy on the delivery of behavioral health care. The Oct. 17-18 meeting covered issues including community partnerships, care for geriatric patients with Alzheimer’s, tele-behavioral health in primary care and emergency department settings and the role of emergency departments in the opioid crisis.

Conaway, who has represented the 7th legislative district for 22 years, noted he also is working on the Congressional Black Caucus Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, chaired by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12th), to identify legislative recommendations to address a mental health crisis among black children.

“Today’s children are suffering a high degree of distress in their lives,” he said. “We have to do something about that.”

Reaching children in need earlier is a start, he said.

“We know that for adults with depression and anxiety, it manifests at an early age, and we know that with treatment they can be helped,” he said. “Just like anything else – whether it’s diabetes or hypertension – if you get to it early, establish diagnosis, start treatment and early intervention, you can change the course of someone’s life.”