The Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District’s focus on mental health wellness continues to expand. On March 19, Brookside School will host Nassau County’s first Youth Wellness Summit, a program created by the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.
The summit is a daylong event that arms attendees with the knowledge to identify and combat mental health issues, and support general wellness. Twenty-five Nassau County public and private schools will be represented by six students and two advisers each.
Topics discussed at the summit will align with SPTS’s mission to prevent and raise awareness of teen suicide. To tackle the issue, depression needs to be a central topic of discussion, SPTS Executive Director Dawn Doherty said.
“We need to create less of a stigma on the subject,” Doherty said. “It’s OK to not be OK.”
“We hope everyone can use the new skills they’ve learned to take it back and be ambassadors of their schools,” said Michael Harrington, Bellmore-Merrick’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “They’ll know how to help fellow peers if they see them struggling, and they’ll have the ability to make a difference.”
Although this summit will be the nonprofit’s first on Long Island, it hosts a number of summits annually in New Jersey, where panelists with personal experience with mental health struggles offer their firsthand insights.
Stacy Brief, who attended Mepham High School, is a frequent panelist. She understands the struggle of depression firsthand, having experienced bullying, low self-esteem and self-destructive behavior in her younger years, she said.
Now a junior social work major at Adelphi University, Brief has helped many others like her through SPTS. As the community organizer of Long Island’s Youth Wellness Summit Committee, she was crucial in bringing the event to the community, Harrington said.
Brief explained that mental health issues begin to form during middle school for most teenagers. Students go through “immense pressures,” particularly with social media testing young adults’ self-esteem. The multiple panels and workshops in the summit will help attendees push back against that stress.
Of every six student attendees from each school, half are sophomores and half are juniors. Different programs at the summit are designed for each grade level — for the juniors, for example, Doherty described “Life Transitions” as a workshop that prepares the older students for life after high school. Students are shown what life might look like, whether they continue school for two or four years or go straight to a career. “It helps bring to light concerns, which relieves stress,” Doherty said.
Other workshops, such as “Know Your Worth,” for sophomores, help build self-esteem, and others give perspective to the soon-to-be high school graduates with advice from recent graduates.
In “Strings of Hope Resiliency”— the summit’s feature panel — speakers share personal stories of perseverance. Some panelists have lost loved ones, Brief said, and others battle depression or thoughts of suicide. After the panelists share their stories, attendees can text anonymous questions that are answered by the panel.
The summit also helps identify individual coping mechanisms, which are a vital tool in combating depression and mental health problems, Brief said. People’s preferred coping mechanisms include listening to music, exercising, breathing or drinking tea. When a young adult finds their passion through coping skills, she said, the risk of suicide is reduced.
A coping strategy Brief sees in many people, she added, is perhaps the most rewarding — helping others. “It’s wide-spread,” she said, “and nothing feels better.”
Harrington said the district already anticipates the benefits of the summit and will make the event an annual occurrence. “I think it’ll stick,” he said, “and it’s something we plan to continue to do.” Doherty agreed that SPTS would have a new home in Nassau County, adding that the hope is to expand to eastern Long Island in the future.
SPTS reminds anyone struggling with mental health issues or thoughts of suicide to call (800) 273-8255, or to text 741-741.