By Mara Certic
Supervisors in both East Hampton and Southampton kept to their words this week when they put $25,000 aside in their tentative budgets to go towards improving mental healthcare in South Fork school districts.
In April, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle awarded $150,000 in state aid as seed money for the first step of the three-pronged South Fork Behavioral Health Initiative.
Senator LaValle secured an additional $5,000 each for the Sag Harbor, Southampton, East Hampton and Hampton Bays school districts. Each district, in turn, is expected to match that amount.
Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman managed to get his hands on $17,000 more from the county, bringing the anticipated total funding on the South Fork up to $257,000 for phase one.
This first phase, which Mr. Thiele had anticipated would require $320,000 in total funding, would establish a crisis service that would provide immediate mental and behavioral health needs specifically to South Fork area students. It is proposed one full-time psychiatrist be hired to work at the Family Service League’s East Hampton and Westhampton Mental Health Clinics. The first step is also slated to include the hiring of two full-time social workers.
“It also establishes Family Service League as the interim point of contact for crisis intervention,” Mr. Thiele’s proposal reads. “A permanent point of contact will be established in the second phase, which builds on and expands the crisis service through a mobile unit and community collaboration.”
The third phase would involve seeking out support from Stony Brook University’s psychiatric residency program.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the issue of seriously lacking mental healthcare on the South Fork was first brought to his attention by the East Hampton School District over a year ago.
As it stands now, there is no appropriate process set in place for a student who might be experiencing a crisis at school on the East End, be it threatening self-harm or contemplating suicide. According to Karen Boorshtein, president and CEO of the Family Service League, “When a school district encounters a crisis, they usually need to involve the police and have the youth transported over 60 miles to the psychiatric emergency room at Stony Brook.” Not only does this place strain on local police departments, but more often than not, these troubled children are handcuffed and placed into the back of a police vehicle for their trip up to their evaluation.
Once students return from their emergency evaluations, they then often face long waiting lists at local mental health clinics. There is not a large pool of mental health professionals on the East End, which many attribute to our remote location and rather sparse year-round population. Those who do operate on the South Fork often do not accept insurance and typically charge $200 to $300 an hour, according to Ms. Boorshtein.
“The last two years have seen the completed suicides of three youth and a significant increase in the number of mental health crises being experienced by youth and requiring school districts to respond,” Ms. Boorshtein wrote in a e-mail on Monday.
According to the CDC, the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 24 is suicide. In a 2011 nationally representative sample of high school students, 15.8 percent of youths reported they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the 12 months preceding the survey.
According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), an organization dedicated to suicide prevention, the strongest risk factor for suicide is depression. The organization also claims that 80 percent of those who seek treatment for depression are treated successfully.
“The grant will increase and improve coordination of community mental health services to avoid future mental health crisis and suicides,” Ms. Boorshtein said.
The initiative also calls for telepsychiatry, which will provide secure phone lines on which troubled students can talk to licensed psychiatrists. The American Psychiatric Association recently deemed telepsychiatry “one of the most effective ways to increase access to psychiatric care for individuals living in underserved areas.”
The Family Service League is gearing up to start making these changes, and soon enough, phase one will be implemented on the South Fork. But the battle ahead is long, and much more money will be needed to complete all three of the steps.
“The potential catastrophe here is around the corner if we can’t deal with this better than we have been in the past,” Mr. Cantwell said.
Thursday, October 9 is National Depression Screening Day on which individuals can take a free online mental health screening at helpyourselfhelpothers.org