Editorial: The state Legislature must fully fund the North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health

The tragic death of 16-year-old Ryan Oliver, a sophomore at Mattituck High School, has reinforced the need for school districts to pay close attention to the mental health needs of students, particularly now with COVID-19 forcing so much change and continued hardship on families and young people.

That need was emphasized at a recent Mattituck-Cutchogue school district meeting, where administrators pleaded for state funding to be restored to the very critical North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health, a consortium of local hospitals, elected officials and the Family Service League that worked to improve students’ access to mental health services on the East End.

In an action state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) described as “shameful,” funding for the initiative was omitted from the state’s 2021 budget.

Mr. Palumbo is now pushing the state Legislature to restore this program with enhanced funding. Prior to its funding being eliminated, the coalition brought together the districts from Riverhead to Shelter Island and helped them address the mental health challenges of students. Individually, the districts are too small to address these issues on their own.

We strongly support Mr. Palumbo’s efforts. In a release, he said COVID-19 has placed “tremendous stress” on students and families, particularly with the isolation that comes from remote learning and the separation from friends.

“The state Legislature must reestablish the North Fork mental health initiative funding in the state budget and provide additional state aid to help fund this collaborative and extremely important initiative for North Fork students and families,” Mr. Palumbo said.

Mattituck High School senior Myah Orlowski spoke at a recent virtual workshop hosted by Eastern Suffolk BOCES and Suffolk Region PTA. She made it clear that the pandemic has cut into students’ well-being.

“The systems are strained, debilitating social and emotional health issues, substance use disorders and mental health disorders are rising,” Myah said, adding that the recent loss of Ryan Oliver called greater attention to the issue. “Mattituck is in need of support for all of our students and administration during this devastating time.”

Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Jill Gierasch and other district officials said teachers are acutely aware of the struggles students are facing. Teachers in all the districts on the North Fork are doing their best, in Ms. Gierasch’s words, to “take the temperature of students,” but all the districts need a fully funded coalition to address problems when they arise.

“This program is critical and we will really fight to get it back in the budget. Particularly during this pandemic, it’s obviously needed as we’ve seen in the past few weeks,” Mr. Palumbo said, adding that the loss of Ryan was shocking and tragic. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”