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Hewlett-Woodmere School District collaborates on mental health center for teens

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After the death of Hewlett High School sophomore John Sabu in September, the Hewlett-Woodmere School District has attempted to put more of an emphasis on mental health, which now includes collaborating with two medical care facilities and four other school districts on behavioral health center for teenagers.

On Jan. 31, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for Northwell Health’s Behavioral Health Center in Rockville Centre was ceremoniously opened with a ribbon-cutting on Jan. 31. The partnership includes Cohen Children’s Medical Center and the East Rockaway, Freeport, Oceanside and Rockville Centre districts. The facility allows immediate access to care for any student in crisis.

Sabu was struck and killed by a Long Island Rail Road train at the Hewlett station on Sept. 6. In response, the Hewlett-Woodmere district held “Postvention” workshops were held for the entire student body on Sept. 25 and 26. Postvention is a process that helps people cope with a loss. Superintendent Dr. Ralph Marino Jr. said the district became aware of the collaboration this past summer.

“Survey data gleaned as part of our HW 2025 initiative shows that academic related stress and anxiety is the number one concern for students, parents, and staff,” Marino said. “To help address these concerns, we wanted to offer our public and non-public school students and families access to high-quality behavioral health care, regardless of ability to pay.” The HW 2025 initiative is a seven-year plan that seeks to put the school district in the best possible position to improve the manner it educates its students.

In addition to addressing suicide, the outpatient facility will treat children dealing with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression. It will be equipped with a licensed mental health counselor and a child psychiatrist who can provide day-of assessments, and staff will then help coordinate follow-up care. In the typical model, children are sent to emergency rooms, and it can take four to six weeks for a follow-up.

“It’s a crisis across the country that’s present in emergency rooms,” said Dr. Vera Feuer, the center’s director. “Kids have no other way to get same-day access, and a lot of time is spent delaying care before they can get to a provider that will be able to initiate treatment.”

With the center, Feuer said, as soon as a parent or the school identifies that a child has a problem, the clinic can have its child psychiatrist provide an assessment and evaluation, determine whether there is an immediate risk and if care is needed, such as medication or counseling, or if the child should go to the hospital. 

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat who represents the Five Towns, said given the stigma surrounding mental health and the high cost of care, the available resources are not adequate. “We’re realizing that our schools have become ground zero for being first responders and being the institution that deals with mental health on such a frequent basis,” he said. “It’s important for them to have the tools to be able to handle it properly.”

The opening of this facility, he said, is an important step forward. “There are a lot of kids from a lot of districts that can use this support,” Kaminsky said. “It is a crisis of our time that we’re just beginning to grasp.”