Madison Gamberg of Rockville Centre could hardly comprehend the news. Her best friend at South Side High School in Rockville Centre — a bubbly, energetic and popular sophomore who loved music and dancing — had taken her own life.
None of it made any sense, thought Gamberg, 16, a junior. Her friend was always so positive. She got good grades and never expressed any mental health concerns.
"When I got the tragic news of her passing, my world was suddenly turned upside down," Gamberg said Friday at the opening of the Behavioral Health Center in Rockville Centre, a clinic to help young people deal with mental health issues, including suicide. "I couldn't believe that someone that seemed so happy and that had her life going for her would decide to end her life so suddenly."
The outpatient facility will be operated by Northwell Health and serve students from the Rockville Centre, Hewlett-Woodmere, Freeport, East Rockaway and Oceanside school districts. The five districts paid $55,000 apiece to help fund the center's inaugural year. Officials hope to expand the center to include additional school districts in the coming years.
The center will be equipped with a child psychiatrist and a licensed mental health counselor to provide expedited assessments, counseling, and referrals for young people in crisis as well as those struggling with more common mental health conditions, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety and depression.
Young people with immediate mental health needs can typically be seen right away in an emergency room, officials said. But once the urgency has passed, obtaining continuing care can often take four to six weeks — time a young person may not have to waste, said Dr. Vera Feuer, director of emergency psychiatry and behavioral health urgent care at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
"It's a crisis across the country that is present in emergency rooms everywhere," said Feuer, a psychiatrist who will direct the new center. "Kids have no other way to get same day access and spend a lot of time waiting for care before they can get to a provider."
Teen suicide has become a growing mental health crisis nationwide and is now the second-leading cause of death among teenagers and children as young as 10, statistics show. But officials say a stigma is still attached to mental health issues.
"We wouldn't do that if someone had cancer or a cardiac problem," said Michael Dowling, president and chief executive of Northwell Health. "So we all have to re-educate ourselves; speak about it differently; be more articulate about how we explain it and become part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem."
Michael J. Dowling, left, Northwell Health president and chief executive, with Dr. Vera Feuer, director of emergency psychiatry and behavioral health urgent care at Cohen Children's Medical Center, and William Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre School District, addresses media as Northwell Health opens the Behavioral Health Center on Friday. Credit: Danielle Silverman
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who helped facilitate the new clinic, said suicide prevention had failed to receive adequate funding or public attention.
"We can do so much better on mental health," Kaminsky said. "It's a crisis of our time that we are just now beginning to try and fully grasp."
William Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre School District, said he never imagined there would be a need for a behavioral health clinic. But last year, two high school students — Gamberg's friend and Ryan O'Shea, a recent graduate — took their own lives.
Johnson said it was difficult for adults to understand the pressures and stresses that young people experienced every day.
"Many of us grew up in a world where suicide, and some of the options that these kids are willing to consider, were never part of our world," he said. "It is now."
Spurred by the suicides, Gambert and her friends established SAFE (Suicide Awareness and a Friendly Environment), a club at the school where students have a safe place to discuss their feelings and address suicide head-on.
"Keeping these emotions bottled up inside of you is not a great idea," Gambert said. "Always reach out. To have these thoughts in your head, that just keep on going and going and going is not a good idea at all."