As more teens face increasing anxiety and stress especially after enduring years of the pandemic, a Youth Wellness Summit in North Merrick aimed Tuesday to give students and staff the right tools to build resilience and improve mental health.
The event, hosted by the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, featured panel discussions and workshops on effective prevention and wellness techniques for sophomores and juniors, as well as school staff. It drew participants from more than 30 high schools — mostly from Nassau but a handful from Suffolk, too.
"It's so important to do this because every life is really important and because everyone goes through challenges throughout their life and for some of us we get really narrow minded and feel like those difficult emotions are going to last forever," said Stacy Brief, a social worker and the Long Island event coordinator for the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. "This work is about ... making sure that kids can help other kids and help themselves."
This was the third summit to be held on Long Island by the organization, a Freehold, New Jersey-based nonprofit started in 2005 by two fathers whose teenage children died by suicide. The organization has held similar events in New Jersey, and Tuesday's initiative was hosted at the Brookside building in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District.
WHAT TO KNOW
- As more teens face increasing anxiety and stress, a Youth Wellness Summit in North Merrick aimed to give students and staff the right tools to build resilience and improve mental health.
- Hosted by the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, the event featured sessions on effective prevention and wellness techniques for sophomores and juniors, as well as school staff.
- A report issued last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that teen girls especially are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk.
“Honestly, we are seeing a spike in the number of students needing mental health support,” said Michael Harrington, superintendent. The district has a history of supporting mental health resources, he said, including partnering with the Amityville-based South Oaks Hospital, part of the Northwell Health system.
Still, "the need has grown tremendously since COVID and that is why an event like this is needed more than ever – there’s not enough work we can do in this regard," he said.
Suicide is a leading cause of death among youths and young adults. A report issued last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that teen girls especially are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk. The report noted that nearly 3 in 5 U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 — double that of boys, and representing a nearly 60% increase and the highest level reported over the past decade.
Tuesday, each participating Long Island district sent about two staffers and four to five students who will serve as ambassadors for mental health when they return to their home districts. The event has grown to include more schools — including Chaminade High School, which is the first Catholic school to participate.
Riley Adams, 16, a sophomore at Mepham High School in Bellmore, attended a workshop on how students can recognize their own worth.
"Being confident in yourself and having the courage to be a person that anyone can come to is definitely a big thing that I've already learned today," Adams said.
Workshops for school staff included a painting session in which educators learned how to use art as the creative expression of an emotional outlet, Brief said.
"Much of our messaging for our students is centered around friends helping friends and we explain that helping a friend can mean reaching out to a trusted adult when a friend is in need, so it is very important the trusted adults know how to respond appropriately," said Dawn Doherty, executive director of the society.
The group is also hosting similar summits across New Jersey.
The February CDC report said youth mental health has continued to worsen — with particularly stark increases in reports of harmful experiences among teen girls, with nearly 1 in 3 who seriously considered attempting suicide — up nearly 60% from a decade ago.
It urged investment in schools to serve as a vital lifeline to help struggling youth.
Long Island districts have instituted a number of measures to address mental health issues, including adding more staff, incorporating social and emotional learning into the curriculum, and in some cases adding spaces where students and staff can de-stress during the school day.
Brief said more needs to be done. Her group plans to start a Youth Council in Nassau County in the fall for high school students who are interested in becoming mental health advocates.
“I found that the kids I was working with who weren’t really struggling at all, after the pandemic started to struggle and those who were struggling their difficulties became more severe," she said.