It was a calm Friday evening as dozens of after-school students filled the Central High School auditorium.
It was a chance to meet retired NBA player Michael Sweetney — but not to talk about his time with the New York Knicks or the Chicago Bulls. Instead, he had joined the SameHere Global Mental Health Movement executive Eric Kussin to talk about a very sensitive topic: mental health.
“For the next hour, our goal is to engage and entertain you through storytelling,” Kussin told the students. “The other is to challenge you to think about this topic differently: cognitive mental health.”
It’s not that mental health is only an issue for a select few. Maintaining good mental health is important across all of society, Sweetney said — even among sports stars, where it’s not necessarily part of everyday conversations.
Just as he had reached the high point of his basketball career as a first-round NBA draft pick for the Knicks in 2003, Sweetney’s mental health soon spiraled after the unexpected loss of his father, and the stresses he was feeling on the court.
The two wanted to leave students with the imperative to normalize their conversations about mental health challenges — not just for themselves, but also for their loved ones.
If the message hadn’t resonated then, it took on a whole new importance four days later as Valley Stream students capped their Mental Health Awareness Month observance. The school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 students and two teachers — the second-deadliest school shooting in American history since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Students, parents, teachers — society — are once again left to process the grim reality of gun violence in school. Such events seemingly have become commonplace with 27 school shootings through that point this year alone that involved injury or death, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.
And with an uptick in gun-related violence in and around schools in recent years, many Valley Stream students have felt a heightened sense of anxiety, frustration, and other mental health problems as school officials and community leaders grapple with how to best ensure student safety while also helping them cope.
“My fellow peers and I are angered, upset and horrified,” said Emily Monfort, a senior at Central High School. “When a parent sends a kid off to school, they expect their kid to go there to learn and come back home safely. No parent can be prepared for something so devastating. Just to think about my own younger sibling who goes to elementary school — I would be completely destroyed if he didn’t come home safely.”
For Monfort, there have been too many mass shootings in recent memories — something she blames on the nation’s current gun laws.
“We get that guns are a part of our rights, but it’s those same rights that are causing the mass amount of people to be harmed,” Monfort said. “People may have guns as a reason to protect themselves, but do the benefits of having such rights outweigh the cost? It seems to be doing more harm than good.”
While Texas might be more than a thousand miles away, what happens there can have dire affects to the students much closer to home. Christian Bowen — Central High’s assistant superintendent — says he’s communicating with families “the importance of supporting our students’ mental health, especially during tragic events such as the recent shootings.
“This will be an evolving and ongoing process, and cannot be solved overnight. But we will continue to connect students with the resources they need — both in our schools, and through our partnerships with Northwell Health and Same Here Schools.”
The Valley Stream Central High School district has taken a robust approach to shore up mental health resources. Last year, the district launched wellness centers at each of its four schools, staffed by psychologists, social workers and school counselors, to help students cope with the mental tolls of the coronavirus pandemic. There have also been various mental health wellness events, parent support forums, and a monthly district wellness newsletter complete with a list of mental health resources for families to use.
“When it comes to accessing mental health resources in our school, we are lucky to have a ton of people that are accessible for us to speak to, from guidance counselors to teachers to social workers,” Monfort said. “You won’t be penalized for wanting to talk to someone during the school day. If one person can’t help you, they will send you to someone who will in a comforting and discreet manner.”
Yet, even Monfort admits to still face challenges when it comes to holding difficult conversations and expressing emotions with school officials, peers, and even with her own family.
“My peers feel a personal conflict in wanting to communicate with others about their mental health issues,” she said. “Some keep to themselves and find it hard to lean on a trusted adult that they don’t know. Others find the sense of support comforting.
“Some worry that if they share with a teacher, it may affect their reputation, so they may refrain from saying anything.”
Daniel Iqbal, a Central High junior, said he was never taught mental health at home.
“My parents just shrug it off, like it doesn’t exist,” he said. “It’s hard for me to open up, but mental health is a real concern, and there is science behind it to back it up.”
Iqbal’s situation is something Dr. Juann Watson sees too often.
“Mental health does not exist for families in many different cultures,” the psychotherapist and Kingsborough Community College psychology professor said. “They don’t want to admit it because it’s a negative. It’s a no-no.
“To be mentally healthy is to be able to express your feelings and to know that you have the ability to tap into that part of you that doesn’t feel well and be able to talk it out and take care of those thoughts and emotions — even if you do it with tears. You’re healthy enough to know that today’s not a good day.”
Still, processing the “sheer magnitude” of the emotions from this tragedy will “take a long time,” Watson said. “Awareness is key.”