Early this week, as lawmakers raced to the finish line before Tuesday’s start of the state’s new fiscal year, a proposal to increase access to mental health services for South Fork students cleared a hurdle, with $150,000 earmarked in the approved budget.
Since the start of the year, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, joined by other elected officials, school administrators, and heads of nonprofit organizations, have participated in two round-table discussions about recent student suicides on the South Fork and the dearth of appropriate services.
Since 2009, three young Latinos have taken their own lives, and, in the last 18 months, East Hampton High School alone has referred 20 students who were feared to have suicidal thoughts to Stony Brook University Hospital, which houses the closest psychiatric facility.
Citing geographical isolation and changing demographics, among other factors, the $150,000 has been hailed as a crucial step in the right direction. According to a draft supplied by Mr. Thiele for the mental health project, the first of a three-pronged effort is to include hiring a full-time child psychiatrist and two full-time social workers at an estimated cost of $320,000.
“To be able to go to Albany and get the funding is great,” Mr. Thiele said on Tuesday, labeling the $150,000 “seed money.” Mr. Thiele hopes that the $150,000 will serve as a catalyst for additional resources, ideally a combination of funding from the state Office of Mental Health, Southampton Hospital, and local school districts, governments, and nonprofits. Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle had requested $160,000 from the state, coming up only slightly short. “The lack of the $10,000 won’t deter us from going forward,” Mr. Thiele said.
Besides establishing a crisis service during phase one, a second phase would expand mental health services by hiring additional social workers and community health workers. The second phase would also include a mobile unit capable of going wherever there is urgent need. A third phase would bring Stony Brook psychiatrists to Southampton Hospital as part of an expanded residency program.
During the East Hampton School District’s budget talks in recent weeks, Adam Fine, the high school principal, had asked the school board for a $30,000 increase for mental health services. Faced with a state-imposed 2-percent tax cap and more than $1 million in budget cuts, however, increases of this nature were far from guaranteed. Though numbers are still being finalized, Mr. Fine is hopeful at least $5,000 will come through. “Something will be allocated, but not the $30,000,” Patricia Hope, the school board president, said on Wednesday.
Mr. Fine, who spearheaded the effort to increase mental health services here, first meeting with Mr. Thiele last summer, said he was very pleased with the state’s promise of $150,000. “This is the beginning of a long process to secure adequate funding and services for our at-risk students. I look forward to continuing the mental health dialogue with our committed local elected officials,” he said.
Further planning among those in the group that came up with the request made to the state is underway. “Now that we have the state money, we will bring all of the members of the task force back together and plan next steps, including how to match funds and implement the proposal as we go forward,” Mr. Thiele said in a press release. Mr. LaValle joined his colleague in the release, calling the state allocation “a crucial step in working toward necessary solutions for this under-served area.”
The legislators also noted this week that $500,000 had been approved for Lyme disease and tick-borne illness prevention and treatment.