October 1, 2022

Taking over as chairman of the National Governors Association, Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday announced a nationwide effort to strengthen mental health among young Americans, calling it a crisis “we must tackle together and now.”

Officials and experts say the U.S. has been facing a mental health crisis made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Murphy’s office pointed to a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 37% of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic, while 44% reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

Each chairman of the NGA — a group that includes governors from both major political parties — takes on a chief initiative, and Murphy’s will be the “Strengthening Youth Mental Health” program will be his chief initiative. The Democrat unveiled it shortly after being sworn in as chairman Friday morning.

Murphy said he chose this issue because “as challenging as the previous two years have been for us adults, we know the strain is nothing compared to what too many of America’s children were under.” That, he said, includes remote learning and students missing out on socialization among their classmates, as well as graduations, proms, and more.

“As governors, one of our most important and sacred responsibilities is to our state’s children,” he said in a speech to his fellow governors who gathered for the NGA’s summer meeting in Portland, Maine.

“It is our jobs to ensure their safety,” Murphy added. “It is our jobs to ensure their educations. It is our jobs to ensure their health and well-being, both physically and mentally.”

Details about the initiative were scant, but Murphy said it will have four pillars: prevention and resilience building; increasing awareness and reducing stigma; access and affordability of quality treatment and care; and caregiver and educator training and support. He said each state will “find its own path to achieving these goals” and called on his fellow governors to share ideas.

MORE: Murphy could bolster national profile as he prepares to lead governors group

Murphy shuttered in-person classes in New Jersey in March 2020 as the coronavirus began to spread rapidly. He reopened school buildings in September of that year, though students remained in masks for months to help curb the virus’ spread and many schools were forced to go remote for periods of time because of outbreaks.

Republicans and some parents regularly criticized the governor for closing schools and imposing mask mandates for too long, adding to students’ stress.

Murphy’s new role as NGA could help bolster his national profile as he is considered a possible candidate for the 2024 Democratic nomination for president if President Joe Biden does not seek re-election.

In his speech Friday, Murphy noted the goal of the NGA is to “facilitate bipartisan solutions” and “recognize that we are partisans third, governors second, and Americans first and foremost.”

“To be honest, most of our constituents don’t really care what party we represent,” he said. “They elected us to deliver solutions. They asked us to lead our states to make their lives, and those of their families and neighbors, a little better. And, again, to be honest, they, like the majority of Americans, just want us to find common ground.”

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Brent Johnson may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him at @johnsb01.