Mattituck HS student, educators lobby state officials for resources to address student mental health

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, people of all ages are still struggling to cope with isolation and monotonous, quarantined life.

But the pandemic is taking a greater toll on students, particularly teenagers, who are worn down by remote learning, missing out on major milestones and anxious about what’s to come.

In response to rising concerns over mental health, students and educators in the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district are pleading for state funding to be restored to the North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health, a coalition of local hospitals, elected officials and the Family Service League working to improve students’ access to mental health services, which historically have been limited due to the geography of the East End.

“We all know the impact the pandemic has had on families’ behavioral health needs,” Mattituck High School senior Myah Orlowski said during a recent virtual legislative workshop hosted by Eastern Suffolk BOCES and Suffolk Region PTA.

“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 sudden loss of sophomore Ryan Oliver reinforced the need for support. “Mattituck is in need of support for all of our students and administration during this devastating time.”

Funding for the initiative, which mirrors a program first implemented on the South Fork, was notably omitted from the state’s 2021 budget, which State Senator Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) described last year as “shameful.”

During a Board of Education meeting last Thursday, Superintendent Jill Gierasch said some grant programs have helped keep the program afloat, though not at the $175,000 funding level they were initially seeking. Despite the lack of funding, Ms. Gierasch said Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital and other local agencies have partnered together to continue providing services where needed.

Ms. Gierasch and other district officials said teachers are acutely aware of the struggles students may be facing, sometimes silently, as the pandemic rages on. Students had mental health screenings when school began in the fall “just to take the temperature of students,” Ms. Gierasch explained. “What were their fears and some of their struggles.”

Emergency counseling and other services are available to Mattituck students in the wake of Ryan’s death, which officials say underscores the need for the program.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pediatric mental health-related visits to the emergency room increased 24% for children between ages 5-11 and 31% for children ages 12-17 at the height of the pandemic in April and remain elevated.

“To keep the level of services going, how will you approach the restoration of mental health funding and expand the efforts on the East End to avoid the increasing evidence that we are heading towards a crisis in our region?” Myah asked state lawmakers during the Feb. 6 Zoom meeting.

State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and Assembly members Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and Jodi Giglio (R-Baiting Hollow) vowed to advocate for restoring and increasing funding for the program to $250,000. Southold Town Government Liaison Officer Denis Noncarrow has also applied for additional funding through the Community Development Block Grant program and is awaiting a response.

“To be perfectly frank, there may have been a little politics involved,” Mr. Palumbo said of the funding cuts. “But at the end of the day, this is not an expensive program … 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,” he said, adding that the loss of Ryan was shocking and tragic. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” Mr. Palumbo said.

Ms. Giglio said school districts should have increased flexibility for allocating state funding to meet needs in certain areas. “We’re hearing all throughout the country about depression,” she said. “Honor students and athletes that are committing suicide and it’s not acceptable. We need to make sure that [mental health] is the No. 1 priority” for students and teachers alike.

Mr. Thiele said the program, which was started in response to suicides on the South Fork, has been a success. “In the wake of the pandemic when mental health services are in such increased demand more than ever before, this funding has to be included and politics needs to be set aside,” he said.

Myah’s plea for funding the program received wide support from other legislators on the call, including state senators Mario Matterra (R-St. James) and Alexis Weik (R-Islip).

At last week’s Board of Education meeting, district officials said they would continue to advocate their support for the program and follow up with local lawmakers.

“We are going to hold them to this and continue to advocate for our students and the needs that mental health services provide on the North Fork,” Ms. Gierasch said. 

She said she’s proud of Myah for speaking up on the issue. “I hope they really see the impact and how these services are needed,” Ms. Gierasch said.