Not many young students will volunteer information, unprompted, about feelings of depression or their recent experimentation with drugs.

That's why advocates, school employees and lawmakers are pushing for regular screenings of students at the middle- and high-school levels, as long as their parents consent.

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With a caseload of 400 students, counselor Cristina Puri at Lincoln Park Middle School typically wouldn't end up seeing a troubled student until someone else sensed an issue or the student was presenting outward signs in class.

Her school is one of a couple in the Garden State testing out a model known as SBIRT — Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment. Since November, 50 students were screened in a way that's meant to pick up on the need for mental health services or the severity of substance use.

"This is a wonderful way of catching students before they start to show these outward signs," Puri said.

Puri made her comments Wednesday during a virtual conversation about student mental health, presented by New Jersey Citizen Action.

NJCA said New Jersey is at a "pivotal moment" for mental health support, especially among students, as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the 13-month mark. SBIRT is one of the most promising approaches, the group said.

The SBIRT model continues to be tested at Bordentown Regional High School. Twenty-seven face-to-face screenings so far have resulted in 11 brief interventions and five referrals to counseling.

"When a young teen sits across from you and opens their heart to you, it's a profound moment of truth," said Nell Geiger, the school's student assistance counselor. "One of the students shared that she had never shared with anyone what she shared in our office."

Both houses of the New Jersey Legislature have approved a measure that appropriates $1 million to annual mental health screenings in schools for students in grades seven through 12. Another measure that would require annual substance use surveys on each high school student was advanced by a Senate committee in March.

"The more we can to get to our youth at a young age, the better off we will be, to put them on a better path for their future and for their community's future," said Senator Anthony Bucco, R-Morris.

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