Kyle Buttner, 18, of Levittown, speaks Sunday in Central Islip about...

Kyle Buttner, 18, of Levittown, speaks Sunday in Central Islip about his battle with mental illness during during a statewide virtual rally. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Students, parents and advocates met Sunday in Central Islip for a virtual statewide rally to urge more resources for youth mental health needs many said have reached crisis levels during the pandemic.

The online rally was hosted by the Campaign for Healthy Minds, Healthy Kids, a statewide coalition of behavior health providers, advocates and families.

“Children are now … experiencing more and more severe mental and behavioral health issues than they have before,” said Andrea Schwalm Stolz, executive director of Amityville-based Long Island Families Together, who organized the group in Central Islip.

“We're in a crisis,” she told Newsday Sunday.

A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March found 44% of high school students reported feeling “sad or hopeless” last year. Girls and LGBTQ youth reported even higher levels of poor mental health and suicide attempts. The CDC noted youth mental health was getting worse even before the pandemic.

During the Zoom conference, participants spoke of the urgent need for more state resources and more support in school systems.

Among the two dozen attendees in Central Islip were Kyle Buttner, 18, along with his parents and siblings, of Levittown.

In an interview, Buttner, a senior at Iris Wolfson High School in Greenvale who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, said he felt isolated in body and mind during the worst of the pandemic.

“I was trapped in the house. I couldn't go anywhere,” he said. “And I was trapped [within] my own mind.”

Buttner said he wanted others to take mental illness seriously.

“Some people don't see it as serious,” he said. “They think it's not as bad as an actual sickness or tumor, which, sure, it's not as deadly. But when it comes to perceiving and when it comes to living, they're just as bad.”

His sister Kaycee Buttner, 25, who has suffered depression since she was in elementary school, said she was ignored or dismissed when she told adults of her struggles.

“I really hope that the world sees that people who are depressed, they are not joking,” she said. “We're real. We exist. And we just want someone to acknowledge that we matter, too.”

Kaycee Buttner said she wanted to see mental health issues more widely discussed and in a more informed fashion.

“You'll watch a movie and you're like, oh, this girl is depressed, but her depression is she's just sad. It's not what real depression is,” she said. “Bad things in your life don't have to happen to cause depression. Sometimes it just happens. And I really think it just needs to be brought more to light what depression really is.”

The brother and sister said they were sharing their story to help destigmatize mental illness and spur awareness.

Their mother, Karen Buttner, said she’s had “a journey of connection and acceptance” that changed her and brought her family closer together.

“I always thought that I would have the perfect family,” she said Sunday. “When it all started coming to a head, I started to see that I had to see them as the perfect family. It didn't matter what they were going through. I had to visualize them and accept them 100% and love them. … Now our whole family is so close.”

In that, she said she’s found a gift.

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