Middle and high school students in the East End are at the center of a new mental health program by OLA in Eastern Long Island

Young people are the focus of a new program from OLA in Eastern Long Island that seeks to help middle and high school students with mental health or emotional needs—many of those who responded to the nonprofit’s survey challenged they encountered it while in school.

“The Youth Connect model is that young people are the center, and then around them are those other entities that need to be there to help young people thrive. So it will be parents, peers, school, mental health professionals and homes of faith,” Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA, said of the new program that has begun A few weeks ago.

OLA wants to enhance mental health resources for East End youth by providing bilingual crisis counselors to connect them with the support they need. This includes school mental health services or other educational assistance, or special services that may be available, depending on the student’s needs and preferences. Perez says Youth Connect is not limited to Latino students, although OLA is a Latino-focused and Latino-led advocacy organization.

“A lot of OLA’s work ended up being like the Canaries in mine. We see people taking the most hits, and we realize that it affects not only Latino youth, it affects all young people who do not have adequate access to mental health services. ‘ Perez said. “In middle school and high school and those entities around them in our whole East End,” YouthConnect told everyone.

The program has started in two districts – Bridgehampton and East Hampton – and there are plans to expand to five school districts by the end of October. She said the East End has 24 school districts.

mental health issues

Mental health issues “not only affect Latino youth, they affect all young people who do not have sufficient access” to help, said Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA in Eastern Long Island.
Credit: Randy Dadona

OLA conducted a survey last year that focused on the mental health needs of adolescents mostly in the East End. It found that many reported having mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, linked to “the demands of school life” and their social interactions.

Stony Brook University’s Center for Community Engagement and Leadership Development analyzed a survey that included responses from 271 people ages 11 to 37.

The majority of responses (69.5%) came from students of high school age, asked about their school experiences. According to the university’s analysis, nearly 75% of respondents reported experiencing anxiety or nervousness, and 59% “reported that they felt discouraged or hopeless at some point during their middle or high school years.”

One of the report’s three authors, Brooke Ellison, an associate professor at Stony Brook College of Health Professions, said the surprising finding was the apparent disconnect among survey respondents, who said they would recommend professional mental health services to others, but sought to have the family. And friends to themselves. According to the survey, nearly 60% of respondents said they reached out to friends to talk about their mental health challenges, while just over 47% said they sought out family members or legal guardians.

“What is causing this reluctance among teens to seek trained professional help?” Ellison said. “This is an area that definitely needs future research.”

Not to overstaff, Perez said she has been slowly rolling out the Youth Connect helpline number, which students can call or text, to individual school districts when they board the ship. Although she hasn’t released the number publicly, she said some calls and texts have come in.

Faith Evans, Crisis Advisor at Youth Connect at OLA of Eastern…

Faith Evans, a crisis counselor for Youth Connect at OLA in Eastern Long Island, is aware of the secrecy that the program provides.
Credit: Randy Dadona

Faith Evans, a crisis counselor in Youth Connect’s Office of Legal Affairs, said she sent a text message from a student who was showing “concern about their grades. They didn’t know what to do.”

Aware of the secrecy that Youth Connect provides, Evans said she did not want to reveal details of a “successful” interaction with the student. “Instructions were given and this student said thank you and they will do just that.”

After hearing one student’s concerns, Perez said Youth Connect counselors would reach out to school officials, and ask them, “What would your process look like to have this student possibly reduce some stress…Tell us what we can do…And then we’d go back to the student and say,” Listen, we talked to the manager. These are the things they will be able to do. Will it help you, do you think?”

She added, “We’re not going to throw this person to school and make them come back and say it didn’t help me because now I’m scared because they didn’t know how to navigate it all. We’re going to say we’ll find out for you.”

Because the program provides confidentiality, Perez noted that not all callers will identify themselves, so the situation may happen differently, or the student may not want school officials to know their problems.

In addition to the helpline, Youth Connect also develops workshops for parents, religious groups, and others. Perez said workshops with parents can help them learn how to talk to their children about self-harm or gender identity issues, for example.

Jessica Tovar, support and executive support team member at OLA...

Jessica Tovar, Executive Support and Support Team Member at OLA in Eastern Long Island, talks about Youth Connect on October 3.
Credit: Randy Dadona

School principals in Bridgehampton and East Hampton have welcomed OLA’s Youth Connect programme.

Said Mary T. Kelly, principal of Bridgehampton Schools, which has 200 students in preschool through 12th grade.

“We’re going to get this up and running,” Kelly said. “When that happens, we will meet with the families and spread the information.”

Adam Fine, Superintendent of East Hampton Schools, says Youth Connect’s focus on mental health is an urgent need. “When I look at this program, mental health has been a big thing in East Hampton,” Fine said, referring to two deaths by suicide since 2013 of East Hampton students, and two other former students.

“Social and emotional well-being is very important,” Fine said. He said that the district, with 1,830 students, is about 55% Latino, and presents a different dynamic than most people associate with the affluent Hamptons, which some consider “the most fashionable place on Earth. But we are a very diverse community. We are a very diverse community. We are also a rural community.” The resources you see in western Suffolk County or in Nassau are not here.”

OLA plans to recruit youth as youth delivery advisors at the middle and high school levels. In the meantime, the group has already brought in young people to help develop the program. While working as an intern at OLA last summer, Emily Lobercio, 21, a student at SUNY Geneseo who lives in East Hampton, helped organize the OLA Youth Summit last August that got involved with young people aged 13-22.

“We wanted the youth talk to be something about mental health and emotional support,” Lupresso said by phone from college. And she can count on her point of view, as a Latina and a young woman “I’m just beginning to learn about my mental health [and] Talking to my other colleagues about how COVID is really affecting us.”

“We want students to feel comfortable … enough to access the mental health care that their school district provides,” Lupercio said of Youth Connect.

Karen, a 16-year-old from East Hampton who is an OLA intern and did not want her last name to be used due to privacy concerns, said Youth Connect provides an important way for young people to get help for any concerns they may not have. Willing to share honestly.

“It’s very special,” she said. “This is something a lot of teens need. Sometimes I feel like teens aren’t comfortable speaking in front of an adult. So they feel more comfortable with friends and others their same age.”

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