Mental Health Services Have Improved, But Still Much More To Do

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Major strides have been made in the last few years on behalf of East Hampton students who require mental health services.

In years past, a student who needed immediate evaluation and assistance would have to be taken by police car to the psychiatric emergency room at Stony Brook University Medical Center. Now, help in a crisis situation is mostly provided locally: Students can seek help from the Family Service League and the East Hampton School District.

At the same time, there is still a long way to go for adults who need help, according to Glen Hall, chairman of the East End Disabilities Group.

The goal is to improve mental health needs throughout the community by implementing a three-phase plan: first, by increasing child and adolescent psychiatric services and increasing clinical staff; second, by expanding crisis services; and, third, establishing a new Community Behavioral Healthcare Collaborative.

Funding came from the state, Suffolk County and East Hampton Town and other local partners—just last year, $270,000 was put toward the South Fork Behavioral Health Initiative, which seeks to address mental health problems and suicides among school-age children in the region. This year, Senator Ken LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele secured $150,000 in the final 2015-16 state budget for the initiative.

“I pinch myself,” said East Hampton High School Principal Adam Fine in celebration of the headway that has been made so far. “It’s not something I expected. This is a true, true example of how local politics combined with community needs can work to create resources for students in need.”

In the last three years, since the suicide of East Hampton High School student David Hernandez Barros in September 2012, the community has come together to make it easier to get students help. Working with the Family Service League, the East Hampton School District hired a social worker who works with children when they enter a mental health crisis.

“It’s a huge, huge asset,” Mr. Fine said. “Kids are not spending six to seven hours up at Stony Brook and back in school the next day. There is an ongoing dialogue with the Family Service League, so we’re seeing and hearing what is transpiring with the child.”

Additionally, students can be evaluated or get support and counseling with Family Service League thanks to private donations. Mr. Fine compared it to “walking around with a magic wand for kids.”

That help has been coupled with a series of inspirational guest speakers at the school who have shared their stories and school climate surveys, which the students have taken each year for two years. The surveys gauge for the faculty and staff how comfortable the students feel in their environment.

Next year, Mr. Fine said the school will bring in a speaker from the State Office of Mental Health to educate students on the signs of at-risk behaviors that lead to suicide and a speaker from the National School Climate Center to help students identify name-calling and bullying. “The idea is that the kids are in the trenches and have to be trained in that manner,” he said.

Mr. Thiele said there has been a tremendous push for meeting the need before it’s necessary. Now, he said, it’s important to focus on prevention and providing the services needed before people reach a crisis situation.

“It’s largely about having mental health professionals available to people to address the demand,” he said. “I heard that there is a waiting list that a lot of private and public agencies have. A six-week waiting list is not a satisfactory situation. I think people are happy about what has been done so far—but, to be fair, we’ve just scratched the surface.”

That’s where Mr. Hall comes in. As the chair of the East End Disabilities Group, his main focus at the moment is discovering what the community needs in terms of mental health services and being a voice for them when it comes to finding funding.

On April 21, the group held a forum with a guest speaker from the Suffolk County Department of Mental Hygiene. There, Mr. Hall realized that there isn’t an open door for adults who need assistance. Unlike students now, adults still have a problem with transportation to mental health facilities upisland and have a difficult time getting in to see psychiatrists here on the East End.

“A lot of people that have experience with mental health issues know the only way to get to a facility is in the back of a police car, which makes them even less likely to go to one of these facilities,” he said. “I think our community, the East End, has to have a facility on the North and South forks.”

The lack of a mental health facility and psychiatrists on the East End affects those in need. Mr. Hall said the cost of living keeps many doctors away, causing general practitioners to dole out medication without the input of a psychiatrist who knows the patient.

In some cases, psychiatrists and therapists don’t take health insurance, so many people cannot afford preventative care, he said, and many social workers have twice the number of clients they have time to treat.

The problem, too, Mr. Hall said, is that many do not know how funding is being directed. While he is grateful for what the local government has done in terms of supporting the three-phase plan, he said there’s more that needs attention.

“So no matter where you go in looking at this situation, it’s just broken,” he said. “Ultimately, the problem is that our country and our healthcare system in general has always been crisis response. We always wait for something to break before we deal with it.”

Mr. Hall and his group envisions more resources on the East End, not only emergency mental facilities, but places called “living rooms,” where people can go to talk about their issues, socialize and network for support. The group has funded a number of life skills classes at the Whalebone Village apartments in East Hampton. More of that kind of help could also be an asset, he said. A goal of the group is to establish an office that would provide resources, like a suicide hotline and information services.

“We have to start being our brother’s keeper,” he said. “We need to change the way we spend our money and look at what is wrong and fix it.”

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