Oceanside parents head back to school to learn about mental health

Creating and maintaining an equal playing field


Parents went to school on Jan. 10 to learn from students and mental health professionals about students’ perspective on mental health and ways to open the lines of communication between the generations.

The presentation, which took place in the School No. 6 auditorium, was part of a workshop titled “What Families Can Do to Promote Mental Health … and What Can Help When You Need More,” created by the Oceanside School District’s Parent University.

Oceanside High students Hannah Ott and Lily Knobel serve as Cohen Strong Mental Health ambassadors, using their teenage perspective on the mental health crisis to educate groups, and discussing mental health in the same context as physical health. Both students spoke to over 100 parents as part of a panel alongside mental health professionals.

Those professionals included Vera Feuer, who oversees School Mental Health at Cohen Children’s Medical Center; Nina Weisenreder, a school psychologist at the high school and the coordinator of the school’s new Wellness Center; and Ellen Ritz, a health educator and the president of the Long Island and Queens chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Mental health remains a hot topic, resonating with students and adults alike after several years of dealing with the pandemic, which has only added to the stress families face in today’s world.

“One of the points that I hoped to highlight during the presentation is the important role that connection serves in the overall mental health and wellness of children,” Weisenreder said. “Connection serves as a protective factor and a source of support during difficult times. It’s wonderful that our district is exploring various ways to continue to build a sense of belonging for all of our students.”

Another topic the panel discussed was “communication and validation.” Presenters encouraged parents to help their children identify and express their feelings and the reasons for those feelings, and to validate their children’s feelings and experiences.

Parents can also be models of effective strategies and behaviors for their children, they were told. For example, parents can demonstrate how they use calming talk, deep breaths and mindfulness, and try to put events in their proper perspective when dealing with stress. In addition, a focus on physical health — getting enough sleep, good nutrition, healthy activities and exercise — can also boost mental health.

And experts agreed that promoting resiliency within a family can help family members stay strong when problems arise, as they inevitably do. For example, focusing on goals, accepting change, and viewing difficulties as challenges that can be resolved can help children maintain a positive outlook that will help them weather hardships.

“The truth is, everybody has mental health, so everyone should be able to have conversations about it and have an equal playing field when it comes to prioritizing it,” said Knobel, who is looking toward a career in medicine.

Her ambassadorial colleague, Ott, is interested in becoming an outpatient social worker. She said that her involvement in the Cohen’s Strong Mental Health Ambassadors program helps provide her and other students with tools to better understand mental health maintenance.

“The Parent University event helped provide some reminders and new tips for me to implement at home with my kids to help support their emotional and mental health,” said Carrine Montoya Molite, a School No. 2 parent who attended the workshop.

Another parent of a School No. 2 student, Lorie Dawson, who serves on the Parent University Committee, praised the workshop for the preventive strategies it offered as well as the resources available for families that may need to seek help. The committee is chaired by Diane Provvido, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and research.

A copy of the presentation can be accessed through the district’s website, in the news section.