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Editorial: Lives will be saved by one item in the state budget

The budget that passed both the Assembly and the state Senate last week contains an item of critical importance to local school districts: $175,000 for the North Fork Mental Health Initiative.

Compared to so many other items in the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget, that amount is small. But its significance is enormous: It will save lives once it’s fully in place in our schools. As Joann Scalia, Sen. Ken LaValle’s chief of staff, put it: “This is one of the most rewarding projects we’ve ever worked on.”

Sen. LaValle and Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo pushed hard for this appropriation because they knew how badly it was needed. Local school districts will be expected to make their own financial contributions to the initiative.

A similar state-funded initiative, supported by Assemblyman Fred Thiele, has been in place on the South Fork for about three years and has saved the lives of young people who have needed immediate help. Hard numbers are not available, but suicides and attempted suicides have been reported, which caused officials to look for help.

Before the South Fork program was established, a student who, for example, expressed suicidal thoughts to a teacher would be referred to local police. An officer would then drive that student to Stony Brook, an hour or more away, for evaluation.

Now, thanks to that program, and its soon-to-launch North Fork counterpart, that student will receive immediate attention from a mental health professional in schools and on call. Students who want to talk privately can walk into an office and chat.

Problems are dealt with immediately. Police are not involved, considerable time is saved and, with state funding, insurance and other costs are no longer a concern.

“Before, someone who was in crisis who wants to talk did not have a way to do so,” said Mr. Palumbo. “When an adolescent is in crisis, it has to be dealt with immediately … Kids may not want to talk to a teacher or a nurse, but would welcome a private conversation with a mental health professional. That is the gold standard we wanted addressed — immediate help for the student.”

In an email, Mr. LaValle said the new initiative will “support our young people in a time of crisis, and build a local support network equipped to deliver immediate, affordable follow-up services on the North Fork.”

To Mr. Palumbo, the initiative will unquestionably save lives and could also have an impact on the opioid crisis, where there is often a strong mental health component.

“That is why we wanted it in the budget,” he said. “There were incidents on the South Fork of suicides and attempted suicides. That was the pilot program. This is really needed, and it needed to be dealt with immediately.”

Dr. Anne Smith, superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, has been an articulate voice for mental health care and programs. Her input is all over the effort to create a North Fork Mental Health Initiative.She applauded the inclusion of the funds in the budget, which now awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.

This is a singular achievement that Dr. Smith, who will retire as superintendent in June, can speak of with pride.

“This is a great start and will create a foundation of support and awareness that is truly needed for our youth and their families,” she wrote in an email. “We applaud our legislative partners and their efforts to fight for our region, where resources are needed in the area of mental health and behavior sciences.”

We applaud their efforts, too. It is not hard to look into the near future and see families whose lives will be greatly improved by this new program. This is a very smart use of public funds.