Taking Action to Support Youth Mental Health

NYHealth grantees like the New York School-Based Health Foundation and Organización Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island are working to support the mental health needs of students in communities across New York State. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing mental health challenges and highlighted the urgency to increase access to comprehensive mental health services. Findings from an NYHealth data brief showed that while rates of poor mental health among New Yorkers fluctuated throughout the pandemic, more than three in ten (31.5%) adult New Yorkers reported experiencing depression and/or anxiety in March 2023.  

Young people’s mental health may be even more precarious. According to a CDC report, the rates of youth who persistently felt sad or hopeless increased substantially between 2011 and 2021, from 28% to 42%.  

For newly arrived New Yorkers and those who don’t speak English, language barriers and difficulties navigating complex health systems can compound young people’s symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress.  

School-Based Mental Health Services 

The New York School-Based Health Foundation used NYHealth funding to offer technical assistance and develop resources to support in-school mental health services in schools throughout the State. It assisted schools with implementing events like health fairs and screening programs, as well as meetings on topics such as stress management, weight loss, and self-esteem. It also provided staff training on evidence-based mental health support services. Across the two-year project, 1,600 students were screened for behavioral health symptoms, and more than 350 students enrolled in treatment, with the majority receiving care at school-based health centers.  

As part of the project, school-based health centers created support groups across various themes.  One school-based health center aimed to meet the needs of students who’ve newly arrived in New York.

“Every month, we still get kids who are new to the country; 40% of the kids in the school are newcomers. They’re not alone [in being] the only kid in school that’s new and speaks a different language,” noted a school-based health center social worker. The support group provided age-appropriate social activities, including painting, board games, and vision-board making, to ease anxiety about school. It became a safe space for students to bond over their experiences. “We used this game called My Journey into the U.S., and it allowed for the kids to share their experience when they got here.” She added that addressing the mental health challenges of the school community also means meeting basic needs, including stocking up on toiletries and extra clothing for students who need them. School-based health centers have been playing that crucial role. “Everyone’s trying to survive. You can’t just leave a student who’s struggling without resources and support, but I find that the kids are so resilient.” 

Based on the learnings from this project, the New York School-Based Health Foundation has launched a two-year grant program to support school-based health centers in serving students in the downstate region who have newly arrived in New York and are experiencing migration and settlement transitions. 

Bilingual Mental Health Support on Long Island 

Thousands of Latinos live in the area year-round working in essential industries like landscaping, farming, and hospitality. Many are immigrants, face food and housing insecurity, and have limited access to health and social services. In some school districts in the region, up to 40% of students are Latino, and up to 60% live below the federal poverty level.  

Organización Latino Americana (OLA) of Eastern Long Island used its NYHealth grant to expand student access to crisis counseling and mental health services in English and Spanish. OLA’s Youth Connect hosted workshops for Eastern Long Island school districts and provided an estimated 2,000 middle and high school students with access to a confidential bilingual crisis helpline.  

Common themes shared with Youth Connect’s anonymous hotline included family tensions, being overwhelmed at school, depression, and anxiety. But there were also concerns about immigration stressors, which underscored the need for trauma-informed approaches.

“They miss the family that they left behind,” explained Adriana Cardona, a Youth Connect crisis counselor. OLA also emphasized the importance of incorporating language justice and ensuring culturally accessible programming. “When they’re in emergent situations, especially for youth and teens, [things] can be misconstrued in some way, or they can’t fully express themselves,” another OLA staff member added. Counselors who speak the same language and understand their culture help young people address their mental health needs while honoring the complex emotions related to assimilation. OLA continues to provide workshops and access to a confidential bilingual crisis helpline. Learn more about OLA’s services here. 

Children Struggling with Mental Illness Get Help at the Pediatrician’s Office

More than 200,000 children in New York State live with serious mental health conditions; untreated or undertreated mental illness can have a devastating impact on children and their families, leading to school failure, encounters with the criminal justice system, and suicide. To better meet the needs of children and adolescents struggling with mental health issues, an innovative program on Long Island is integrating mental health services into primary care settings for youth.

With support from an NYHealth grant, South Oaks Hospital has embedded mental health therapists on-site at pediatrician offices—allowing for a convenient, trusted setting for children and their families to get mental health treatment in a timely manner.

Transportation difficulties, a lack of capacity to provide pediatric mental health services, and long waiting lists for clinicians who do treat children with mental health issues have limited the ability of children to seek and receive treatment for their mental health conditions on Long Island. To ease this burden, South Oaks Hospital has worked to house mental health clinicians at two pediatrician offices in Levittown and East Hampton, which are now treating a combined total of more than 100 children with mental health issues.

“Families become more engaged because there’s less stigma in going to the pediatrician,” says Susan Jayson, program director of comprehensive outpatient behavioral services, South Oaks Hospital. “It’s a known, comfortable environment for families and kids.”

Under the model, pediatricians identify children in need of mental health services through intake questionnaires and surveys or through speaking with the child or parents to find out if there are any mental health issues. If there is a concern or need, the pediatrician can refer them to the on-site mental health clinician, often times by taking the child and the family down the hall directly to meet the therapist. This on-site integration of services makes it easier and more likely for families to follow through with mental health appointments, allowing for early intervention and effective treatment for the child that in turn can minimize the effects of mental health issues.

“Our 13-year-old daughter has been struggling for years; in one visit she mentioned to her doctor that she was feeling anxious, and we were immediately introduced to someone who could help us,” says the parent of a patient at the Levittown office. “Now, we visit the office weekly for her to speak with the therapist there and monthly to get her medication. It is so nice to be able to go to the one place we trust the most to get all of our needs met. Today, our daughter is beginning a new school year and is finally off and running.”

This integrated approach to care is helping set the precedent for addressing behavioral health issues in primary care settings for children and ensuring that each child’s physical and mental health needs are appropriately met.

“The pediatricians are on board with this and anecdotally we’re hearing from them about a decrease in visits related to stomachaches, headaches, and other psychosomatic symptoms from patients who are now receiving mental health care,” says Ms. Jayson.