Since July 2018, New York state education law has required public schools to incorporate age-appropriate mental health education into the curriculum for all grades. As part of an effort to broaden that mandate, Mandalay Elementary School in Wantagh hosted its inaugural mental health summit for parents late last month.
The evening’s program, which drew parents from the district’s three elementary schools, was the brainchild of Principal Marie Pisicchio and Mandalay and Forest Lake schools counselor Donna Schulman, and featured child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Caryl Oris as the keynote speaker. She spoke on “Parenting: Helping Your Child Achieve Academic Success and Social/Emotional Well-Being.”
Other presentations included dietician and nutritionist Sharon George, who spoke on the effects of healthy food habits on families. There was also a talk on the use of essential oils, by special education teacher Angela Farinacci. And Education Alive Wellness founder Diane MacDonald, clinical social worker Jennifer Sedler, Long Island Crisis Center hotline counselor Debbie Grattan and Forest Lake School’s clinical psychologist, Dr. Tracy Zelenetz, also led segments.
“Last year, we invited Laura Campbell, from the Long Island Crisis Center, to speak, and the response was positive,” Pisicchio wrote in a text message explaining the impetus for the summit. “When we heard Rockville Centre had a larger venue with workshops centering on mental health issues, we knew this was exactly what we wanted to offer Wantagh elementary families.”
It was at the Rockville Centre summit that Pisicchio and Schulman heard Oris speak and knew they wanted her for their own event. Formerly in private practice, Oris is now a full-time consultant for several school districts, including Wantagh and Seaford.
“What Caryl did [at the summit] was exactly what parents wanted,” Schulman said. “She gave them tips so they could leave with practical tools.”
Before the Wantagh summit, parents were asked to respond to a survey. “They were mostly looking for general information,” Schulman said.
Presenters were chosen based on feedback from the parents. “We searched . . . both in and outside the district to target our parents’ needs, based on their responses,” Pisicchio wrote.
The evening ran from 6:45 to 9 p.m. and was broken into nine segments that were attended by roughly 100 parents.
Mental health issues among children and adolescents have been on the rise for the past several decades. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34 — a 50 percent increase in 20 years.
At the same time, various forms of addictive behavior are on the increase as well, including drug and alcohol use, smoking and vaping and eating disorders, according to a recent American Psychological Association study.
“We want to increase awareness of mental health issues facing families and give parents resources to assist with their children’s development through adolescence,” Schulman said.
“The main thing — and one of the most difficult to achieve — is balance,” she said. “It’s not just a question of helping children accomplish goals. It’s a question of connection,” she said.
Oris spoke of the overwhelming number of distractions available to children and parents, filling every waking moment. “Being bored can be a wonderful thing, because it can stimulate creativity,” she said. To remedy boredom, “families used to play games together — do things together.”
One of the ways that Wantagh elementary schools have opted to address the problem of distractions is to have one night a week with no homework. “We used to call it ‘unplugged,’” Schulman said. “Now, we just call it ‘connection.’”
The concept is simple: Because students have no schoolwork of any kind, they are free to spend time with their families. Parents are encouraged to make the same commitment. “They can do anything, as long as they do it together,” Schulman said. “One student asked if it was OK to go to the mall with her mom. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ The most important thing is that they’re spending time together.”
Students file a brief log of their activities after each “connection,” and Schulman estimates that between 70 to 80 percent take part.
Making connections does not happen automatically in contemporary society — if it ever did. “It takes conscious effort,” she said. “Parents need to make the effort and the time to show kids they’re important.”