Bellmore-Merrick Central District expands wellness centers

South Oaks psychiatrist joins team helping students stay well


After wellness centers opened in all three high schools in October, the scope of the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District’s mental-health campaign continues to grow. A new $102,000 contract with South Oaks Hospital, approved by the Board of Education at its meeting on Jan. 2, will provide students with more options for their mental health needs.

A psychiatric social worker from South Oaks Hospital, a division of Northwell Health, will be at district schools for one day a week to connect students with psychologists, psychiatrists or therapists, as needed, through the Northwell network, according to Superintendent John DeTommaso. The agreement runs until June 30.

“We will have on call, as part of our district, a psychiatrist on staff four hours a week,” DeTommaso said at the meeting. “They will be going to different buildings, work with the kids, provide evaluations and work with staff.”

Students facing mental health issues can now access a “medium of services” that the schools were previously unable to provide, DeTommaso said. South Oaks psychiatrist Sharon Ska-riah, who will be in the district once a week, will be able to contact a psychiatric social worker, who can then “work directly with kids and families and get them specifically to places they need to go for issues they might have.”

DeTommaso explained that, prior to the agreement, there were limited options for students seeking help.

“If we have that situation right now, the school is making recommendations for just the people we know, and that may or may not take a person’s insurance,” he said. “That put added pressure on families when they had to find a place to go and a place to take their insurance. Now, that is what this person’s job will be — to get in touch with people who can help families.”

The wellness centers opened in each high school building last year. They were a step toward the district’s greater goal of mental health awareness, offering students an after-school outlet to express issues they may be facing — from depression to college preparedness.

In addition to the high schools’ wellness centers, which are open on Wednesdays from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., the middle schools will open one in each building once a week from 3 to 5 p.m. for the upcoming semester, DeTommaso said.

Mental health experts say that unrecognized, untreated and late-treated mental illnesses elevate the risk of crises such as suicide and self-injury, diminish prospects for recovery, and contribute to substance abuse and other damaging negative coping behaviors.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, teaching young people about mental health is a means of early intervention and prevention, which holds the best prospect for effective treatment and recovery (see box).

Last year, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Michael Harrington said the program was a “game-changer.”

“It’s important,” Harrington said. “Our district is taking a step further than a lot of others, and the social-emotional well-being of our students has become a top priority.”

“Kids and families don’t always have issues that occur between 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.,” DeTommaso told the Herald in September. “Sometimes things happen after that time period. We just wanted to be able to open our doors a little bit longer.”

Emily Paluseo, the district’s assistant director of special education, who DeTommaso said was “crucial” in the negotiations with South Oaks, said that the contract would benefit staff as well.

“Experts will come in and meet with groupings of staff members for professional development trainings,” Paluseo said. “They’ll go over things like cyber safety or suicide risk assessment, ensuring that the staff are all on the same page and speaking the same language.”

Paluseo explained that the district has a long relationship with South Oaks. For nearly a decade, she said, the hospital aided the schools’ Career and Educational Counseling Center, which helped students with disabilities prepare for a professional work environment. Because of this affiliation, South Oaks was an ideal candidate for the agreement, Paluseo said.

“We’re pretty excited about this,” DeTommaso said. “I think this is important for schools and kids moving forward. So far, the wellness centers have been enormously successful — better than we had hoped.”