Losing a friend is never easy. And when the death is self-inflicted by a young, popular person, it is incomprehensible for the loved ones left behind. When South Side High School junior Madison Gamberg lost her best friend last year, she was shocked.
Her friend was always upbeat. But last March, the 15-year-old SSHS sophomore died by suicide. “When I got the tragic news of her passing, my world was suddenly turned upside down,” Gamberg, 16, said at the opening of a new Behavioral Health Center in Rockville Centre. “I couldn’t believe that someone who seemed so happy, and who had her life going for her, would decide to end her life so suddenly.”
Her death came on the heels of the suicide of Ryan O’Shea, 18, a recent SSHS graduate, last January. School administrators, parents, students and community leaders realized that enhanced mental health support for teens had to become a priority, and now a stronger support system is available.
On Jan. 31, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for Northwell Health’s Behavioral Health Center at 100 Merrick Road, a collaboration between Cohen Children’s Medical Center and the Rockville Centre, Oceanside, East Rockaway, Freeport and Hewlett-Woodmere school districts. The facility allows immediate access to care for any student in crisis.
Gamberg is one of many Rockville Centre residents who is hopeful that the new center will prevent more tragedies. “I’m thrilled that there is going to be a facility like this to help people in need,” she said. “It’s been a necessity in our town for a while, due to the growing mental health crisis affecting each and every one of us in some way or form.”
In addition to addressing suicide — which is the second-leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 24 — 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.
“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, who is also 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 last few months, including a presentation to the Rockville Centre Board of Education on Jan. 8. The district signed the $55,000 contract on Jan. 22.
Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said that in his 34 years as schools chief, he never imagined that a mental health clinic would become a necessity for students.
“But here we are,” Johnson said. “And what’s remarkable is there’s an acknowledgement and recognition that the children growing up in today’s world are living through a series of experiences that you and I may not have lived through. We as a community have come together, recognizing and understanding that if we don’t take care of one another, we will all fail.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky 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,” 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.”