West Hempstead school superintendent is a speaker at mental health forum


State Senators Todd Kaminsky and Elaine Phillips hosted a roundtable discussion on finding timely, affordable and high-quality mental health and addiction care on Oct. 3. The forum followed a report by the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, titled “Project Access,” which surveyed 650 Long Islanders and examined the difficulty most patients and their families have accessing mental health and substance-abuse care.

The forum, held at the NYU Langone-Winthrop Research Institute in Mineola, included representatives of the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, the Legal Action Center, Stony Brook University Medical Center, and Central Nassau Guidance and Counseling Services. Nearly 40 percent of the people in the study said that affordability was a barrier to receiving treatment.

Mental health in schools

Among the participants in the roundtable discussion was West Hempstead School District Superintendent Daniel Rehman, who said that the district has seen an uptick in the number of students who come to school officials with mental health issues.

“We’re truly dedicated to finding ways that we could help to support our students and the community at large, because we feel we’re responsible to do that,” Rehman said. “I think if we just begin to have open, honest dialogue about mental health, I think that is the first step in helping to change how society looks at people who struggle with mental health issues.”

West Hempstead Board President Karen Brohm told the Herald that from a school standpoint, the district is trying to get support for its students. “We’re all on different sides of the fence,” she said, “and I think it’s something that so many people don’t see from the other side.” Brohm added that she was encouraged to see that everyone at the forum wanted the same outcome.

Andrew Malekoff, executive director and CEO of the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, said that school shooting incidents such as Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland can hurt people with mental disorders.

“There are [shooters] who are labeled as mentally ill, and that stigma targets people with mental illness as being killers,” Malekoff explained. “The reality is, people with mental illness are disproportioned as being victims of a violent crime rather than being perpetrators.”

Social workers’ standpoint

Nicole Nagy, a social worker for the WellLife Network, shared her struggles with mental illness as a teenager, and the challenges she faced when trying to access timely and affordable treatment. Nagy said it was difficult to get what she needed, even though she had health insurance, and that it would take weeks to schedule an appointment. She published a book last year, “Creative Mind: A Diary of Teenage Mental Illness,” which documents her experiences.

“I’m happy to say that I have a master’s degree in social work, even with all the difficulties I’ve had along my childhood, and I’m working with children who are experiencing similar issues as me,” Nagy said. “I’ve been an advocate for them to let them know that they are not alone.”

Kerry Lynn Eller, a social worker at the Guidance Center, said that hospitals should not be responsible for filling the gaps of inadequate health care. “It really can have a detrimental effect on the community and burdens on families and siblings,” she said.

Malekoff said that one of the reasons for the lack of providers is the low insurance reimbursements rates that they receive. “That’s an issue that has to be addressed, and I’m glad that when we became involved with this study, that we became involved with a large national effort,” he said.

Aaron Inkhasov, chairman of NYU-Langone Winthrop Hospital, said that in spending time with patients, he realized that there is an emotional burden that weighs on families. “If you couple this [with] low reimbursement rates, it really is a bad combination. I’m glad to see consistent efforts on the parts of Senators Phillips and Kaminsky, and I’m hoping that today will [be] another stride in the right direction.”

Support at the state level

Kaminsky and Phillips previously wrote to State Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo, requesting that she investigate the lack of adequate insurance coverage for mental health treatment.

“We cannot allow the mental health needs of our communities to be compounded by access issues that can be overcome through targeted efforts in New York state,” said Dr. Kristie Golden, associate director of operations for the neurosciences at Stony Brook University.

Phillips said that the landscape for providing mental health and addiction care has changed in recent years and that the state needs to be responsive to that. “Discussions such as this,” he said, “will help us to better understand how we can make the pathways to mental health care more accessible to those most in need.”

“In today’s day and age, it is more important than ever for us to ensure that individuals who have the courage to seek mental health and addiction counseling services receive the treatment they need,” Kaminsky said.

One of the solutions to providing support for students was the concept of integrating more mental health services in school districts. Rehman said that while programs such as Nassau BOCES provide help for students with mental illness, he would like to keep students in the district.

“Hopefully, the state can provide some funding,” he said, “and then we can actually implement it into our programs and see a change in society and more of our kids graduate, more of our kids go out into the world and be successful.”