On the softball field, under the intense gaze of parents, coaches and fellow athletes, Calhoun High School junior Megan Vecchione practices a technique to help clear her mind. She imagines inhaling a “happy” color — yellow sunshine, perhaps — and exhaling a “negative” color, such as a somber blue, and slowly her stress melts away. It’s a tip she swears by, and she hopes other students can use it, too.
Vecchione is a co-founder of Collectively Overcoming Problems Effectively, or COPE, a for-youth, by-youth club to counter mental illness stigmas, promote healthy habits and bridge the gap between students and the Central High School District’s mental health resources. She founded COPE with fellow Calhoun juniors Emma Bhansingh, Lauren Pagliari and Sophie Takmopoulos.
Although the club is still in its infancy — their first meeting was Feb. 5 — the group is fueled by lofty goals and is fast becoming a mental wellness resource for Calhoun students. “School is not only a place where you learn. It’s also a place for personal growth,” Bhan-singh said. “We didn’t want to be complacent. There’s a big stigma on mental health, especially in high school.”
Although the district has established several outlets for students to talk about their mental health issues in recent years, club founders said they still saw areas that needed to be addressed. Touting the group as an all-inclusive outlet, they want COPE to be an after-school go-to for students who tend to be more introverted.
“What about students that aren’t star students? What about their voices?” Bhansingh asked. Ideally, the club will “empower students, as well as create a community of empathy” at Calhoun.
“It doesn’t matter [if] you aren’t the loudest kid — you don’t have to be an outspoken person,” Pagliari said. “But we can all come together as a club and help each other and help our school be the best it can be.”
The founders said they hope to help students connect with school psychiatrists, and they are encouraging visits to the wellness center, which is open once a week. A partnership be-tween the district and South Oaks Hospital, a member of Northwell Health, gives students access to professional services, including psychologists and psychiatrists.
“Sometimes things get a little lost in translation, and people don’t really know the resources we have here,” Pagliari said.
“A lot of students don’t feel comfortable going to adults,” Takmopoulos added. “I think having a student there to help helps them feel more comfortable,” especially through peer mentoring, a big focus of the group, she said.
At monthly meetings, students will be welcomed to COPE with a playlist of uplifting music and welcoming smiles. Each session will have a topic, such as “how to help a friend in need,” which was the subject of the first meeting. It will also be a fun place — students can play icebreakers or unwind with yoga exercises.
The founders eventually want to ex-pand the club beyond Calhoun to the district’s two other high schools and two middle schools. They have already become regulars at meetings of the Bellmore-Merrick Community Coalition, a collective of the area’s government and community leaders.
“Traditionally, I feel like student voices are left out of [mental health] conversations,” Bhansingh said. “This is a big stride. [We’re] entering a new era of more involved and more active students — students who are engaged in their own community.”