Guest Spot: We can’t fail our youth now

The North Fork is experiencing an increased need for comprehensive mental health and substance use services within our schools and community. The North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health was established in 2016 with a formal board of directors established in 2018. The NFCBH strives to strengthen and expand a network of clinical providers, school district teams, social service agencies, hospitals, town, county and community resources to improve access to behavioral health services in our community. 

Past funding from New York State — which was not in last year’s budget due to the challenges of COVID-19 — has been restored. The NFCBH applauds the leadership of State Senator Anthony Palumbo, Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio and Assemblyman Fried Thiele for restoring the funding that will bolster behavioral health systems of care on the North Fork. The local support of County Legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming and both Riverhead and Southold town boards along with our local school districts and Stony Brook Medicine and resources from Northwell Health, make this a strong coalition with the common goal of supporting children, families and individuals.

The partnership was formed with Family Service League, local providers and our school districts and towns for the purpose of diverting our youth from hospitalization and providing access to compassionate and more immediate responses to crisis and follow up care. 

We continue to seek more effective ways to support our youth in need of crisis intervention, outpatient treatment and/or hospitalization due to suicidal ideation, attempted suicides as well as other behavioral needs requiring emergency and ongoing behavioral healthcare. The current collaboration is moving us in the right direction. Our schools and communities continue to experience increased school counseling caseloads, calls for outreach support and services, higher numbers of preschool and school-age students in need of social-emotional and behavioral interventions, substance abuse disorders, and increased need for treatment services. These increased school-based needs require sustainable and ongoing efforts for care and interventions related to behavioral health, not only for the entire local population, but for students and their families in particular. 

With the onset of the pandemic, and its protracted nature, behavioral health providers have been faced with many challenges. First, it was necessary to quickly transition to a secure telehealth model to ensure that there was little loss of continuity and that privacy was maintained. As history has taught us with other crises, the increased wave of demand for behavioral health services lagged somewhat behind the immediate medical needs. However, in time, and as expected, we have seen a steady increase in those in need of psychiatric or addictive disorder treatment including young children, adolescents and families. The psychological toll of the pandemic, whether exacerbating already existing conditions or triggering new ones, can’t be overstated and we expect to be dealing with the consequences for years to come.

There is great need to not only maintain but to increase behavioral health workforce capacity to meet these challenges so that those in need can access treatment when needed and not be left to fall through the proverbial cracks. Only with such investment will we be able to achieve the outcomes that will allow us to return to some sense of normalcy in time. 

The North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health strives to strengthen a network of clinical providers, school district teams, social service agencies, hospitals, the town, the county and community to improve access to behavioral health services in our community. As a state, a county, a town and a community, we strive to erase the stigma associated with behavioral health needs and must make access to care seamless. Our community is up for the challenge and our state, county and local leadership have made this a critical priority. 

Ms. Smith is chairperson of the North Fork Coalition for Behavior Health board of directors.