Students on the North Shore who are grappling with mental health issues may soon benefit from a collaborative effort between Northwell Health and the Mineola school district.
At a Feb. 25 Mineola Board of Education meeting, Northwell representatives Gina-Marie Bounds and Dr. Vera Feuer presented a proposal to set up a new behavioral health center and facilitate a strategic partnership for mental health services with the school district.
Youths are facing unique mental health challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrew Malekoff, the executive director and CEO of North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, explained.
“What we would see most frequently before the pandemic, year in and year out, are many kids who are experiencing anxiety and depression, and that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic — because of the uncertainty, the lack of structure and routines that many kids might experience, a general sense of being unsure about where things are headed, losing things such as special activities, feeling isolated and disconnected,” Malekoff said.
“These are many of the things that we’re seeing kids experience today, and as a result, there are more kids that are talking about hurting themselves, or actually making attempts to do so.”
The process of treating such issues is complicated further by the fact that children and teens spend much of their time in school and often engage with mental health resources there. Between the schools’ services and clinical programs, the process of coordinating mental health care can be overwhelming for struggling students and their families.
Catherine Fishman, director of pupil personnel services for Mineola public schools, discussed the district’s intention to mitigate these problems.
“In order for [mental health] services to be effective, they first need to be easily accessible to parents, and schools need to work together with outside providers on behalf of the student. Neither clinical supports nor the school can act in isolation if we want to make sure that students receive proper care,” Fishman said.
“The mental health system is super confusing, and it’s very difficult to negotiate,” she continued. “We need a place where we can arrange a warm handoff for support for parents, so they’re not necessarily having to go to a psychiatric emergency room. There has to be a place where they can first stop and be assessed and decide if they need to go to the hospital at all.”
The proposed North Shore Behavioral Health Center is intended to solve these problems, making it easier for schools and clinical providers to jointly support students and their families. Dr. Vera Feuer, director of pediatric emergency psychiatry at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, explained that the center will streamline communication between schools and outside mental health providers.
“Currently, what we are seeing is really, first and foremost, we need that behavioral health center, that in-between piece that helps connect immediately to providers and to the mental health and hospital system. So, that’s somewhere where school staff can call and send kids and consult with and get an assessment right away, get access to that child psychiatrist right away,” Feuer said.
“When [students] do need immediate treatment, they’ll be able to start that treatment right then and there, and not have to wait weeks and weeks until we’re able to link them with ongoing care and providers.”
Feuer presented a continuum of school mental health services, from preventative programs for all students to medical interventions for high-risk students. The collaborative model that Northwell is putting forward also includes staff training, parent education and more.
The logistical details of the proposal were covered by Gina-Marie Bounds, assistant vice president of the pediatric service line at Northwell Health. The center will most likely be located in Mineola, open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and staffed by a board-certified child psychiatrist, licensed mental health counselor, pediatric engagement specialist and part-time administrative support.
As a medium-sized district, the center will cost approximately $78,000, Bounds said. When asked about how private insurance will play into the plan, she explained that families will be able to work out payment regardless of whether they are insured.
“Once the child comes into the center, they become essentially a Northwell patient. So, we do bill fees for service to the insurance company, but because of the school partnership, which provides the majority of the funding for the center, we turn no patient away,” Bounds said. “If someone doesn’t have health insurance, we have the resources and network of a large health system with social workers to help them get insurance.”
The board was largely enthusiastic about the proposal, with Board of Education Vice President Margaret Ballantyne-Mannion commenting that the service would improve the pediatric mental healt hcare system as a whole.
“If we can keep kids and families from having the trauma of getting that phone call that you have to take your kid to the psych emergency room and not knowing where to go and trying to find a doctor once they’re sent home, I think this is an invaluable service,” Ballantyne-Mannion said.
“The school district tries its best to do what they need to do, but it’s so hard if you’re not getting the communication … It’s through nobody’s fault, but it’s just not a system where things can flow, so I think that this is a spectacular idea.”