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Forum raises awarenesses for mental health services on East End

North Fork school administrators are looking forward to connecting students with new mental health and substance use prevention resources following an open forum last Thursday that highlighted regional services.

The first-ever forum in Southold Town, hosted by North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health, raised awareness about services available to those in need. Regional providers hosted presentations and attendees were encouraged to ask questions.

Coalition chair and former Mattituck-Cutchogue superintendent Anne Smith said the North Fork has challenges when it comes to accessing mental health-related services. Families on the North Fork often had to travel west to Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson or Stony Brook University Hospital for treatment. But the coalition, which was formed two years ago, is working to change that, Ms. Smith said.

Some district officials who attended the event agreed: the coalition has improved student access to mental health programs inside and outside the classroom.

David Gamberg, joint superintendent of Southold and Greenport schools, said in an email that the forum was an “important step forward to bring resources and stakeholders together to help support students and families on the North Fork.”

School communities welcome the much-needed support to improve and better understand available programs, he said.

“I know that our school counselors and social workers in both school districts will continue to build relationships with the people who attended the forum as a means to bring programs and services to the students in our school communities,” he said.

Mattituck Junior-Senior High School principal Shawn Petretti said he walked away from the event with contacts and plans to bring student and parent-based programs to the school in late fall or early winter.

“It was great to hear about the success of what has been put in place as a result of this work and the increased local and immediate access to the supports that were painfully absent in the past,” he said.

Vanessa Santiago, clinical director for Family Service League in Mattituck, at last Thursday’s forum. She discussed where school administrators can direct students in crisis situations. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

As a school administrator, Mr. Petretti said, it was helpful to hear about updated, available outreach and prevention programs that “reflect the needs of our students.”

But student needs are changing faster than providers can create programs, Ms. Smith said at the forum. For that reason, she hopes services are expanded beyond school walls, she said.

“It all started with the schools, but it really needs to grow roots in the community,” she said.

Riverhead Central School District Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said in an email that she looks forward to promoting programs to families, especially those who may be reluctant to ask for help. She added that the coalition has broken down barriers related to the mental health.

“The North Fork Coalition has assisted in removing the obstacles individuals and families traditionally would experience when seeking assistance, and challenges societal and cultural norms in order for our youth to see that it is OK to seek help,” Ms. Henriquez said. “Now we actually have viable solutions in place for all.”

Ms. Henriquez said like many other school districts, Riverhead wants to “ensure access to mental health services beyond the school day.”

Programs outside of schools are being crafted in part by Family Service League’s North Fork Initiative, which aims to address and manage mental health crises and treatment for children over five, teens and their families.

Vanessa Santiago, clinical director for Family Service League in Mattituck, said when she initially met with North Fork school districts, officials said they had to send students in crisis to the 24-hour Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program available from Stony Brook or an emergency center.

Family Service League unveiled a 24/7 crisis service called Diagnostic, Assessment and Stabilization Hub, or DASH, in March 2019. Family Service League chief administrative officer Jeffrey Steigman said the group has talked about replicating the program on the East End and are working to bring the program to the North Fork.

Ms. Smith said the Coalition will use the feedback following the event and move forward. “We want to spread this concept of compassionate, locally provided services for all members of the North Fork,” she said.

Top photo caption: Former Mattituck Superintendent Anne Smith. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

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