Guest Column: Confronting mental health disorders

How do we, as a community, begin to address the very real mental health disorders — acute and chronic episodes of anxiety and depression, and addiction — of our youth? How do we, as school and community leaders, ask and answer the right questions in grappling with the day-to-day mental and behavioral health issues our youth experience? How do we develop the strategies demanded by the moving target of increased suicidal thoughts, actions and self-harm events — including substance use in an effort to stop emotional pain? 

I applaud the Suffolk Times’ efforts to find and share the stories of addiction disorders and families in need of support, and to articulate the questions we need to answer. The stories may help us learn and form connections that will make us a stronger community.

As the former elementary school principal and now superintendent of Mattituck-Cutchogue Schools, social and emotional learning through engaging hands and authentic learning drives my work. A visitor to any North Fork school would find highly engaged learning, professional staff who are lifelong learners and Boards of Education that are true community servants.

Our districts are exploring ways to meet our students’ mental health needs. Approaches include programs such as school gardens, mindfulness and parenting classes to support social emotional learning, bringing computer coding into our schools, world language study and partnerships like Project Fit that produce school-based fitness and wellness.

We provide counseling and prevention programs for students and their families. We value the community partnerships we have, strive to be our best and seek ways to strengthen a culture of wellness and safety. These are the foundations that create stronger academics, lifelong friendships and a commitment to community. And yet our challenges in mental and behavioral health remain.

So, back to my questions: How do we agree to take the bold next steps by embracing what is needed to stem the current crisis of substance use, abuse and addiction? How do we erase the stigma of behavioral health needs?

For the past several months, a group of stakeholders representing our schools, towns, hospitals and mental health professionals has been meeting with local legislative partners to consider new ways to serve families in need of de-stigmatized local support for those with mental health and addiction disorders.

We must erase the stigma and embrace these simply as health concerns, without judgment, without blame. Our school districts are the heart of each community. Joyful, meaningful learning forms a foundation of prevention.

However, when intervention is needed, and no family is immune, we must do better.

I am a proud member of the North Fork community for over 30 years, a proud leader in Mattituck Cutchogue schools for 22 of those years, and feel the time is now. I am grateful to each stakeholder who has joined the discussion to share their expertise and support those in need with compassionate, efficient interventions filled with hope for the future. We invite our community to support this work.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Perhaps we consider bolstering and sustaining programs that support creative play and critical thinking, relationship building, gardening and engineering, wellness as a way of life, character education and community service for our children. Even with all our local strengths, we are not immune to the heartbreak that addiction and mental health issues bring to a family and a community.

So whether we are working within our district culture and diversity committee, engaging in Future Farmers of America, or working across districts and towns to build better systems to assist families when crisis does hit, the key is resilience and relationships coupled with problem identification and solving.

We must confront this issue with the same zeal we bring to all challenges. Challenges are opportunities. Let’s not miss this one.

Dr. Smith is superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District.