“What I’m about to say relates to anything: People sometimes feel like they’re worthless,” a student told her peers in Brookside School’s crowded auditorium in Merrick. “But you are worth it. No matter what, no matter what situation you’re in. You are worth it.”
The message of hope was just one of many shared with more than 200 teens during Nassau County’s first Youth Wellness Summit on March 19. It was hosted by the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, and 22 other schools each sent six students and an administrator. Students from Valley Stream, Wantagh, Seaford, Long Beach, Oceanside and East Meadow participated.
The summit marked the first time that the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, a New Jersey-based nonprofit, ventured to Long Island. The group, which builds awareness of the increasing mental health problems in teenagers and offers coping mechanisms, holds similar summits annually in New Jersey.
“There is such power in knowing that it’s OK to not be OK — in reaching out for help,” Dawn Doherty, the organization’s director, told the students.
Doherty added that the topics of depression and suicide are often taboo in schools, and SPTS wants to eliminate the stigma. Through multiple panels and presentations, people with their own mental health struggles — such as Josh Rivedal, a career public speaker on suicide prevention — shared their stories with the students.
Rivedal spoke about his personal tragedy during his presentation: The loss of his father and grandfather to suicide, and his own struggle with suicidal thoughts. He recalled reaching out to his mother during a dark moment years ago.
“When I first called my mother up — I hadn’t talked to her in about six months — she stopped me and said, ‘Josh, you need to get right with God and get back in the church,’” he recounted. “I got really offended. That didn’t make sense to me as a kid, and it didn’t make sense to me when I was unwell.
“But actually,” Rivedal continued, “I didn’t get angry with her because of the religion thing — it was actually because she was trying to fix me. But we can’t fix anybody. We can facilitate; we can’t teach.”
Stacy Brief, a Bellmore native and a former Mepham High School student, also shared her personal struggle. She considers herself a survivor, having battled depression and suicidal thoughts in the past, she said. Now a junior social work major at Adelphi University, Brief has channeled her grief into supporting teens.
“She’s a survivor,” said her father, Michael, an employee of Friedrich Air Conditioning, which sponsored the summit. “It’s her superpower.”
Some of the summit’s panels encouraged active student participation, such as Brief’s Strings of Hope, during which they texting questions anonymously to the panelists. Dozens of students also arrived at the summit with yoga mats in hand, ready to take part in a group yoga session.
Other prevention and wellness techniques were taught as well, such as preparing teens for life after high school, removing toxic relationships, building self-confidence and learning good communication skills.
Theana Cheliotes, a social worker at Mep-ham, described the Knowing Your Worth workshop, in which students interacted with one another, writing positive messages on one another’s backs on a pieces of paper. “I call this first impressions,” she said. “Many of the things written on a young lady’s paper were things she didn’t quite believe she possessed — but perfect strangers were able to see these things in her. She looked at the paper with tears of joy in her eyes.”
Brief, who helped bring the event to New York through SPTS’s Long Island committee, said that issues such as depression often form in middle school for teenagers. Young students today face “immense pressures,” she told the Herald in February, particularly with social media constantly weighing on their self-esteem.
“With mental health issues in America on the rise, the district is seeking positive and proactive ways to engage students in being part of the solution to what is becoming an epidemic among adolescents,” said Eric Arlin, Bellmore-Merrick’s director of special education and pupil personnel services.
“Our hope is that students and staff take the lessons and skills they learned today and become ambassadors in their own districts,” said Michael Harrington, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
While this summit was Long Island’s first, it will not be the last, Doherty said. SPTS plans to continue its partnership with the Bellmore-Merrick district and to organize the summit annually. The group also plans to branch out to eastern Long Island.
Anyone who struggles with depression or thoughts of suicide is encouraged to contact the 24/7 suicide prevention line at (800) 273-8255, or to text 741-741.