Only days before the death of an Oceanside High School senior last weekend, the school district announced a partnership with Rockville Centre and several other districts in Northwell Health’s new Behavioral Health Center. The facility helps students find care for any crises they may be facing.
The center, at 100 Merrick Road in Rockville Centre, which celebrated a ribbon cutting on Jan. 31, is a collaboration among Cohen Children’s Medical Center and the Rockville Centre, Oceanside, East Rockaway, Freeport and Hewlett-Woodmere school districts.
The ribbon cutting took place nine days before Oceanside school officials announced that a high school senior had died on Saturday.
“I am saddened to report that one of our high school students tragically lost his life last evening,” Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Harrington said in a statement on Sunday. “Our deepest condolences go out to his family and friends. We will have staff at our high school to support students and faculty through this difficult time.”
District officials did not reveal the student’s name or the cause of death at press time, but noted that grief counselors would be available to talk to students or staff members who needed assistance this week at the high school, and that each building has a pupil personnel staff member to address students’ needs.
Before the student died, Harrington said, Oceanside school officials were eager for the opportunity to have their students use the health center. She explained that Oceanside parents and guardians can use the Rockville Centre facility on their own, but added that she expected parents to take their children there at the recommendation of student support personnel at the schools.
“One of the most important aspects of getting students help with behavioral health issues is the need for consistent follow-through,” Harrington said. “The Behavioral Health Center will provide our students access to a more inviting environment for children and their families. Most importantly, it will allow for consistency, follow-up and communication among the providers, the families and the student’s school.”
The out-patient facility will address suicide, which is the second-leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 24, and it will also treat children dealing with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression. It will offer the services of a licensed mental health counselor and a child psychiatrist for immediate care, as well as other staff that can 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,” Dr. Vera Feuer, the center’s director, said. “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.”
As soon as a parent or the school identifies that a child has a problem, Feuer explained, the clinic’s child psychiatrist can 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.
“And if they need ongoing care,” Feuer said, “we’re able to link them with ongoing community providers that are partners in this.”
Gina-Marie Bounds, assistant vice president of the pediatric service line at Northwell Health — and a Rockville Centre resident with four children — was instrumental in making the program happen. She presented the proposal to each of the participating school districts over the past few months.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky said that given the stigma surrounding mental health and the high cost of care, the available resources are inadequate. “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,” Kaminsky 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.”
For Oceanside schools, participation in the center comes amid its OSD Be Well initiative, which launched this school year. While continuing its existing wellness programs, the district introduced a new position of health and wellness provider in the elementary schools, a new mental health course and club in the high school and the Be Well initiative to tie the programs together and involve the larger community.
“We recognize that by joining this consortium to provide a Behavioral Health Center for students, we are reacting to societal needs,” Harrington said. “Our OSD Be Well initiative, on the other hand, is about long-term goals. It’s a proactive approach to strengthening our school communities and families in the hope that students won’t need this kind of support.”