North Fork school districts to participate in mental health initiative

In 2014, South Fork school districts partnered with local hospitals, elected officials and the Family Service League to create the South Fork Behavioral Health Initiative.

The collaboration gave students local access to improved treatment for mental health issues.

Based on that program’s success to date, state Sen. Ken LaValle has recently secured funds to establish a similar program on the North Fork next school year.

Mr. LaValle’s office said he worked with assemblymen Anthony Palumbo and Fred Thiele to roll out the initiative. It will include the Riverhead, Mattituck-Cutchogue, New Suffolk, Southold, Greenport, Oysterponds and Shelter Island school districts, the Family Service League, Eastern Long Island Hospital, Peconic Bay Medical Center, Stony Brook University Hospital and the towns of Riverhead and Southold.

“We are geographically challenged on both forks of Long Island in terms of easy access to programs, services and prevention from experts in adolescent and child psychiatry and counseling,” Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Anne Smith said. “Mattituck-Cutchogue School District has a highly qualified counseling staff and school supports. The missing piece was a collaboration with experts outside of the school setting when more intensive or crisis intervention is needed.”

Joann Scalia, Mr. LaValle’s chief of staff, explained that in the past, if a student on either fork came to the school with a mental health problem, the principal and school psychiatrist had to do an on-the-spot assessment to determine if that student was a danger to themselves. Any student deemed a danger would then be taken to Stony Brook University, usually in a police car. The next day, the student would show up back in school, without any guidance or follow-up.

But under the South Fork Behavioral Health Initiative, students are instead able to receive an immediate evaluation from the Family Service League, which can provide individual and family therapy and establish follow-up plans for the students.

“This is one of my most favorite projects,” Ms. Scalia said. “It just has such an overwhelming positive effect.”

Ms. Scalia described the success of the South Fork program. During the 2014-15 school year, she said, there were 12 student hospitalizations. The following year, there were seven, and during 2016-17 there were just five at the East Hampton schools.

The North Fork plan is expected to roll out in two phases. Phase I includes crisis management/evaluation, with the Family Service League available to schools during the day. A service coordinator, psychiatric prescriber and two licensed social workers at the local FSL clinic will be hired and shared by the districts.

An intensive outpatient program will also be established as an alternative to inpatient hospitalization.

The first phase is expected to cost $300,000, Mr. LaValle’s office said. It will be funded by a $235,000 state grant, $10,000 each from the towns of Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island, and $35,000 collectively from the seven school districts involved.

“This initiative was really important for Riverhead to be a part of,” Riverhead Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said. “It will put us on the path to crisis response through treatment and follow-up — and that’s critical.”

Work on forming the North Fork initiative began about a year ago, said Janet Jackowski, behavioral health supervisor at Eastern Long Island Hospital.

Professionals from ELIH have been involved from the beginning, she said, offering support and insight as plans were developed.

The hospital’s existing outpatient program is only for people 18 and older; children can be treated through emergency services there. ELIH can also provide families with assistance in accessing treatment for their children.

“Mental health and substance abuse disorders are chronic progressive disorders that are treatable,” Ms. Jackowski said. “We wanted to be involved and active participants and are extremely committed to our patient populations.”

Schools also noted the importance of being able to provide students with these increased services. Rather than only being able to offer guidance for the individual during school hours, 24-hour service will now be available to assist struggling students and their families.

“The reality of it is, it doesn’t matter what age you are, when someone experiences such a level of crisis it doesn’t stop at 3 o’clock,” said David Gamberg, superintendent of both the Southold and Greenport school districts. “We need to have [the] ability to make contacts after hours and on weekends and we need to be more responsive. It’s why we need something closer.”

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