LI Herald Editorial: Congress Should Support Maternal Health Grants, Feb 3, 2022

LI Herald Editorial: Congress Should Support Maternal Health Grants, Feb 3, 2022

Featuring Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust and the Birth Justice Warriors, a program co-founded by Taylor-Walthrust and Martine Hackett of Hofstra University.

In Nassau County, babies in communities of color are significantly more likely to die during or shortly after birth than in predominantly white communities.”

U.S. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, last week called on Congress to provide $7 million to fund evidence-based training programs to reduce implicit bias in maternal health, and $25 million to establish a program to deliver integrated health care services to pregnant women and new mothers that will reduce the inordinately large number of maternal deaths among Black non-Hispanic women.

It is an urgent issue, including here in Nassau County, one that the Herald first called on government officials to address in 2019. We are pleased to see that Gillibrand has taken up the cause.

Three years ago, the Herald undertook a year-long series examining racism in Nassau. We led with an exposé on issues of maternal health faced by Black women throughout the county. In particular, we looked at the group Birth Justice Warriors, founded by Hofstra University Professor Dr. Martine Hackett and the Rev. Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, a pastor and the director of outreach services for the North Shore Child Family Guidance Center, a nonprofit mental health agency with offices in Roslyn Heights, Manhasset and Westbury.

Among the central issues that Birth Justice Warriors is working to address is infant mortality, which is a leading indicator of a community’s well-being, according to the Nassau County Department of Health’s 2016-18 Community Health Assessment and Community Health Improvement Plan. When children are dying in high numbers at birth — the start of life — there are probably myriad other health concerns in a community.

In the majority of white communities across Nassau, the infant mortality rate ranged from 0 to 3 in 1,000 births in 2014-16, according to the state Department of Health. Meanwhile, in most communities of color, the infant mortality rate was three to nine times that.

In its annual rankings of healthiest counties in New York, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, working with data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ranked Nassau the second-healthiest of the state’s 62 counties this year. When that data is broken down into individual ZIP codes, however, a disturbing pattern is made clear in communities of color, Hackett said: Babies there are significantly more likely to die during or shortly after birth than in predominantly white communities.

County officials identified nine communities of color and communities with large minority populations — Elmont, Freeport, Glen Cove, Hempstead, Inwood, Long Beach, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Westbury — with measurably greater health concerns than nearby white communities.

Nassau is the 13th-wealthiest county in the U.S., with an average annual household income of around $93,000, according to census data. “The affluence of the county as a whole masks the needs of these severely underserved selected communities,” the county’s report states.

Taken as a whole, the infant mortality rate in these communities is “nearly double that of the rest of the county,” the report continues.

The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the discrepancy on a discrete factor like income level, according to Hackett: Women with fewer financial resources are unable to afford the same level of care that women of greater means can. But statistics tell a more complicated story.

How, for example, does one explain Elmont, a solidly middle-class community of color with an annual average household income of $94,353, above the county average? It has the second-highest infant mortality rate in Nassau.

Access to health care alone “is not sufficient” to explain the disparities in health outcomes, Hackett said. Bias and systemic racism also play their parts, she believes.

Clearly, issues of implicit bias, and at times outright racism, come into play, even in the medical field. It’s time that the federal government study and address them so all of us can better understand the psycho-social complexities of the doctor-patient relationship that can determine maternal health outcomes. 

February is Black History Month. Historically, there is a great deal of mistrust in Black communities of the medical field because of past wrongs, not the least of which was the infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” from 1932 to 1972, when Black sharecroppers with the venereal disease were left untreated to see what would happen, even after penicillin, a cure for syphilis, was widely available after 1945.

The only way to build trust in Black communities is to address their issues head-on, with science-based studies and programs, as Gillibrand has proposed. Congress thus should appropriate the funds that the senator seeks.

Ask the Child Guidance Experts

Ask the Child Guidance Experts

Is it more than the winter blues?

In this monthly column, therapists from North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center answer your questions on issues related to parenting, mental health and children’s well-being. To submit a question, email

Question: My daughter is a mostly happy teen. Like all kids, she gets down sometimes, especially during the pandemic. But what I’ve noticed is that her mood seems to change dramatically in the winter. She becomes lethargic, unmotivated and sad. It’s a very noticeable difference from other times of the year. Is this a common thing with teens? What can I do to help her?

  • Feeling Blue for My Girl

Dear Feeling Blue: It sounds like your daughter may be one of the six percent of the population who experiences SAD, which stands for seasonal affective disorder. While some level of winter blues isn’t uncommon, for some people, the shorter, darker and colder days that characterize this time of year cause clinical depression.

While SAD typically begins in a person’s early 20s, older children and teens can develop the condition.  More than simply the “winter blues,” SAD is characterized by feelings of sadness and hopelessness nearly every day. People with SAD are unable to enjoy the activities that typically make them happy; they have difficulty concentrating and are often tired and/or agitated.

Two chemicals in the brain—melatonin and serotonin—are responsible for regulating energy, sleep cycles and mood. During winter’s darkness, melatonin levels increase, causing sleepiness and fatigue. Serotonin, which is sometimes referred to as the feel-good chemical, is produced in greater amounts with exposure to sunlight, and we naturally get less light in the long, cold days of winter.

Some people suffer from a lesser form of SAD, whose symptoms include low energy, weight gain, craving carbohydrates and social withdrawal.

Some other facts: Females are about four times more likely to develop SAD than their male counterparts. People with a history of depression are more prone to experiencing symptoms of SAD.

Here are some strategies that you can share with your daughter, whether she experiences full-blown SAD or the milder winter blues (and most of these are useful tips for everyone year-round!):

  • Get as much direct exposure to sunlight as possible.
  • Since being out in the sun can be difficult this time of year, either due to cold temperatures or long days inside, consider purchasing artificial “sunbox” lights. Their special fluorescent tubes mimic the sun’s beneficial rays (plain lights don’t have the same effect).
  • Keep or start an exercise routine. If it’s not too cold out and it’s a sunny day, try to walk outside to reap the benefits of being in natural sunshine—but even if you work out indoors, it will have a positive impact on your mood.
  • Turn up the heat (between 64 and 70 degrees) and drink hot beverages.
  • Eat healthy foods, with a focus on fruits and vegetables. That’s good advice any time of year, but especially important in winter when your cravings for sugar and carbohydrates tend to increase.
  • Don’t give in to the urge to isolate. Seeing friends and attending social functions are crucial to putting a damper on the blues.
  • Keep active by engaging your creative side, whether it be taking up a new hobby or reintroducing a former favorite pastime. Encourage your child to participate in after-school clubs and other activities.
  • Take up meditation and other mindfulness-based practices. You can find literally thousands of guided meditations on a free app called Insight Timer.

Finally, keep in mind that if your daughter’s depression is impacting her ability to function, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional—regardless of the season.

During the pandemic, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center is seeing clients both in person and remotely via telehealth platform. To make an appointment, call (516) 626-1971 or email

When Parents Have No Place to Turn

When Parents Have No Place to Turn

By Paul Danilack, Published in Anton Media, January 20, 2022

Growing up, Timmy appeared to be a little bit different than other children his age. He would cry often and have frequent temper tantrums. His parents brought him to see an early intervention therapist, and his symptoms lessened for a few years. But in middle school, his frustration returned in the form of anger, both verbal and physical. Typical back talk turned into confrontations.  Timmy would throw objects and began to attack his parents. They eventually reached their limit and started giving into his behaviors to stop the fighting.

Timmy’s parents felt alone and helpless. They didn’t know where to turn to get their child the care he so desperately needed until a school guidance counselor suggested they call North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center and ask about the Family Advocate Program.

Through this innovative program, parents who are overwhelmed trying to navigate the maze of services available for their child are paired with one of the Guidance Center’s Family Advocates. These credentialed professionals aren’t therapists; rather, they are parents of their own children with special needs and are trained to educate, teach, guide and empower other parents to better understand their children and their needs.

With an individualized, family-driven approach, the Guidance Center’s Family Advocates meet with the parents to learn about their child’s particular issues. Some children have serious behavioral problems, acting out verbally or even physically. Some refuse to go to school. Some struggle with severe anxiety or depression. Many of the problems children are living with have been exacerbated by the stresses caused by the pandemic.

Family Advocates provide a wide range of information and support, attending evaluations with parents; going to CSE (Committee on Special Education) meetings; helping build skills within the family to manage difficult behaviors; finding residential placement when indicated; and seeking inpatient hospitalization if needed. In addition, while Family Advocates don’t provide therapy, they can help parents and their children access those services.

Family Advocates work with parents and the child’s therapist to help design a plan to modify their youngster’s negative behavior. For example, Family Advocates help parents create behavioral charts to develop a uniform approach of rewards and consequences. These strategies help motivate children to listen more carefully and respond in appropriate ways. Moreover, Family Advocates can act as a bridge to many services, such as the school, individual counseling, case management and more, so everyone involved in the child’s life are on the same page when it comes to addressing his or her needs.

Families with children who have developmental disabilities often feel secluded and without support. The Guidance Center’s Family Advocates are well informed about New York State’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities as well as the process to become eligible for those services, which include respite counselors, community habilitation workers and housing availabilities, among others.

Another important feature of the Family Advocate Program is a weekly support group (now mostly virtual, though in person once a month), where parents share their challenges and successes, bouncing ideas off each other, talking about what worked and what didn’t, and building a social support network with others who are experiencing similar challenges. They learn that they are not alone, and they develop close, caring relationships with their parent peers. 

In summary, Family Advocates work to empower each family with a personalized approach, with recommendations and assistance based on what’s best for each client. They care deeply about every family as demonstrated by their compassion toward and knowledge of what can be a very difficult situation. 

Bio: Paul Danilack is the Supervisor of High-End Services at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, Long Island’s leading children’s mental health organization. To learn more about the Family Advocate Program, contact him by phone at 516-626-1971, ext. 303 or email

The Remote Working Parent’s Guide to Balancing Work and Young Children

The Remote Working Parent’s Guide to Balancing Work and Young Children

By Colleen Stewart, guest blogger

There’s no doubt about it: The pandemic changed the workplace forever. Estimates are that in 2021, about a quarter of American employees worked at home at least part of the time. It can be assumed that a moderate to a significant portion of these workers had young children at home.

Creating a balance between remote work and young children can be difficult, especially during the pandemic, but it isn’t impossible. 

Here are some suggested strategies that can help you successfully manage working at home with little ones:

Use Freelancers to Lighten Your Workload 

A freelance virtual assistant (VA) can help lighten your workload by handling small administrative tasks. For example, you could hire a VA to make phone calls, schedule appointments and handle simple emails. A VA can also format and schedule blog posts and manage some (or all) social media postings. Other duties can be assigned, depending on your industry. In the wake of the pandemic, virtual assistant jobs have been on the rise.

You can find virtual assistant services on job boards, dedicated online platforms and even (sometimes) relevant social media groups. Before hiring anyone, make sure you either read reviews or get references. You’ll also want to weigh out the costs versus how much time you’ll save. 

Consider Your Childcare Options 

Thanks to the pandemic, many parents now work from home and care for their kids by themselves, but this can be both overwhelming and a productivity killer. Consider reliable childcare options, even if they’re only part-time. For example, you could look to your support system for help. Could one of your parents or siblings sit with the children for a few hours twice a week? Could your spouse take an hour after they get home for the day? 

Another option is professional childcare or daycare. Sending your toddler to daycare even two or three days a week for a few hours could help you get a lot more work done. If finances are an issue, look into state assistance. Most states have options to pay a percentage of total childcare costs as long as the facility is eligible.

Work Smarter

Despite your best efforts, your mind can only focus on a task for so long before you begin to lose concentration. Consider using the Pomodoro technique. With this method, you work for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. You repeat this four times, and then allow yourself a longer break. 

While the actual method states the longer break should be 15 to 20 minutes, parents can alter this technique to fit their lifestyle. For example, you could take a 30-minute or even one-hour break to spend time with your young children. You can schedule these breaks around breakfast, lunch and nap time, or use one of these breaks to take your toddler outside to play for a short period. 

Practice Meditation 

Meditation can help you feel more in control of your life. It can also help reduce feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. Have your toddler sit and practice meditation with you for five minutes each day, and then take five or 10 minutes for yourself in the evening. Not only will you be practicing self-care, but you’ll also be teaching your toddler an excellent coping technique. 

Bio: Colleen Stewart loves giving her two kids a healthy example to live by. Her passion for community and wellness inspired her and her husband to team up with their neighbors and create a playgroup that allows the adults and their kids to squeeze in a workout a few times a week. She created Playdate Fitness to help inspire other mamas and papas to make their well-being a priority, and set a healthy foundation for their little ones in the process.

Gratitude for Hope and Healing, By Kathy Rivera, Executive Director/CEO

Gratitude for Hope and Healing, By Kathy Rivera, Executive Director/CEO

As we settle into the new year, a look back at 2021 brings up mixed emotions.

What a rollercoaster it was! The biggest news story remained the same as in 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic. While the vaccine brought hopes for a return to more familiar times, the pandemic had other plans, and today, we are in the midst of a surge that brings with it more uncertainty. 

Like all of us, kids and teens are emotionally drained from all the ups and downs, but they’ve faced upheaval at a crucial time in their development. The result: In the past 22 months, rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues among youth have skyrocketed, and our services have been needed more than ever before. 

Despite the unprecedented challenges, the two words that jump to my mind when reflecting on 2021 are these: Gratitude and hope.

North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center is blessed to have an abundance of dedicated supporters like you who answered the call when we requested donations to support our life-saving work. Your generosity made all of us at the Guidance Center grateful.

And knowing we could count on you—and can continue to count on you—filled us with hope as we bring healing to families across Long Island who are struggling to find their way.

Here is just a small sample of what your donations have meant for the children and families of your community:

  • We gave much-needed bereavement therapy and comfort to children as young as three years old who lost a parent or other loved one to the coronavirus.
  • Through our Douglas S. Feldman Suicide Prevention Project, we treated young people at high risk for suicidal thinking through multiple weekly sessions of individual, group and family therapy, along with a culturally sensitive treatment plan focused on safety strategies, healthy coping skills and relapse prevention.
  • As part of our Diane Goldberg Maternal Depression Program, we provided treatment and support for moms experiencing postpartum depression during a time when hospitals prohibited partners from being present at births, and other birth plans were being interrupted by COVID.

These successes are directly attributable to your care and concern for your community. Because of you, the entire staff at the Guidance Center enters 2022 feeling hopeful and deeply grateful.

Wishing you and yours good health, 

Kathy Rivera
Executive Director/CEO, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center

The Case for Mental Health Days in School

The Case for Mental Health Days in School

School can be rife with stress, anxiety, panic attacks and even burnout — but there’s often no formal policy for students who need to prioritize their well-being. Hailey Hardcastle explains why schools should offer mental health days and allow students time to practice emotional hygiene without stigma. 

In this Ted Talk titled “Why Students Should Have Mental Health Days,” Hardcastle gives a compelling case for why, as she puts it, “physical and mental health are equal and should be treated as such.”

In 2019, Hardcastle and her team passed a law in Oregon that allows students to take a mental health day off from school, the same way one would a sick day. Now, she’s working to expand the law to other states and bring more comprehensive mental health resources to classrooms.

Hardcastle got her start in student council as a statewide leader in Oregon. She now recruits other young leaders to create and lobby for policies regarding academics. Her mission: help students take control of their education and health by having a voice in the lawmaking process. 

She currently studies at the University of Oregon and volunteers for the Oregon School Based Health Alliance as a policy advisor and board member. She was named one of Teen Vogues 21 under 21 most influential young people for her work on passing House Bill 2191, which allows students to take mental health days off from school. Hardcastle works with other teens nationwide to promote student advocacy and come up with creative solutions to teenage mental challenges. She hopes that her activism will inspire other young people to stand up and create change in meaningful ways.

Click on the video below to learn how she and a team of fellow teens transformed their advocacy into law.

Looking for a New Career in the New Year?

Looking for a New Career in the New Year?

Would you like to start 2022 with a brand-new job where you can make a real difference in the lives of the kids and families in our community? North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center is expanding our team and has some exciting career opportunitiesin a warm, welcoming work environment!

As Long Island’s leading not-for-profit children’s mental health agency, the Guidance Center is dedicated to restoring and strengthening the emotional well-being of children (from birth—age 24) and their families. Our highly trained staff of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, vocational rehabilitation counselors and other mental health professionals lead the way in diagnosis, treatment, prevention, training, parent education, research and advocacy.

The Guidance Center helps children and families address such issues as depression and anxiety; developmental delays; bullying; teen pregnancy; sexual abuse; teen drug and alcohol abuse; and family crises stemming from illness, death, trauma and divorce.

Currently, we have openings for psychiatrists, social workers, clinical supervisors, social work supervisors, substance use counselors, intake coordinators, front desk agents and more! We are also seeking to fill a key role: Associate Executive Director, who will play a key role in helping our Executive Director/CEO chart the course for our future and uphold our mission and values. 

The Guidance Center offers a comprehensive benefits package, including a comprehensive health plan that includes dental and vision, and generous paid time off. 

For more than 65 years, the Guidance Center has been providing a place of hope and healing to all who enter our doors, regardless of their ability to pay.  To learn more about our job openings and become part of a team of caring, dedicated professionals, visit our Careers page.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Youth Mental Health and the Pandemic

Youth Mental Health and the Pandemic

Surgeon General calls it a “crisis” and cites need for intensive response.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory last week on the devastating effect of the pandemic on the mental health of children and teens is a must-read. According to Kathy Rivera, Executive Director/CEO of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, the report mirrors the experience of our therapists and clients.

“While the number of children and teens experiencing mental health challenges has been increasing for many years, the pandemic has caused an enormous upswing in depressionanxietysuicidal thinking and other issues,” says Rivera. “That makes our work more important than ever, and we are dedicated to helping the families in our community as they navigate these difficult times.”

The Guidance Center has several programs to help those experiencing mental health conditions, including the Douglas S. Feldman Suicide Prevention Project. To learn more about our programs and services, explore the Programs & Services guide on our website or call us at 516-626-1971.

Here are some excerpts from the report, which was released by the office of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade. The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating. The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.”

“Since the pandemic began, rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, have increased. Recent research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.”

“The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced. It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place. That’s why I am issuing this Surgeon General’s Advisory. Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable.”

“Our obligation to act is not just medical—it’s moral. I believe that, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity as a country to rebuild in a way that refocuses our identity and common values, puts people first, and strengthens our connections to each other.”

“If we seize this moment, step up for our children and their families in their moment of need, and lead with inclusion, kindness, and respect, we can lay the foundation for a healthier, more resilient, and more fulfilled nation.”



The Pandemic’s Unsung Heroes, By Bruce Kaufstein

The Pandemic’s Unsung Heroes, By Bruce Kaufstein

All of us – no matter where we live, where we work or whether we consider ourselves left or right or somewhere in the middle – share at least one thing: We are eternally grateful for the dedication of the doctors, nurses, EMTs and other frontline responders who have worked tirelessly, even when tired-to-the-bone, throughout the pandemic.

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, we all remember how residents of New York City took to the streets or their balconies each night at 7 p.m. to bang on pots to show their appreciation for the work of these healthcare heroes. It was a moving sight amid so much tragedy.

But there is another group of heroes that have rarely been given the credit they deserve during these challenging times: parents.

Although children and teens sometimes forget that their parents are real people with real struggles of their own, mothers and fathers have had to deal with enormous stresses as a result of the pandemic. They’ve had to deal with social isolation, job insecurity, financial hardships, family health crises, loss of loved ones and more. Through it all, they’ve needed to be there for their kids, reassuring them that normal life would return.

Parents had an enormous amount to deal with. Young people who already dealt with various mental health issues found their symptoms heightened, while many others experienced those challenges for the first time. Depression and anxiety were (and continue to be) widespread, but many kids exhibited an increase in anger, aggressiveness and impulsivity as they attempted to manage remote schooling, the loss of social connections and activities, and the lack of privacy and space that came with 24/7 togetherness with family.

And, as kids and teens tend to do, they often took out their frustrations on their parents.

At North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, we recognized early on that the pandemic would put a strain not only on kids but also on their families. We started a series of free, virtual Pandemic Parent Support Groups where mothers, fathers and other caregivers could express their own frustrations and learn from others that they were not alone.

With the guidance of one of our therapists, they shared ideas for helping children structure their time. They spoke of the struggles of remote schooling and learned coping strategies. They learned how to be a “container,” or a kind of safety valve, for their children’s feelings. And they were given a safe space to express their own fears.

Today, in what is often called “the new normal,” most of us are in a different place when it comes to the pandemic. Kids are back in school; the vaccine has provided a level of comfort that didn’t exist in the early days of the virus; and we are able to be out and about in the world once again, albeit with precautions and wariness.

Still, the challenges for kids and parents alike are far from over. We are just beginning to realize how the pandemic has impacted our children’s feelings of security and wellbeing, while still dealing with our own fears. Uncertainty remains about what will happen in the future.

But one thing gives me comfort: After witnessing the courage, steadfastness and love parents displayed during these last 19 months, I am certain that they will rise to the challenge.

If you are a parent or caregiver, give yourself credit for all you’ve done for your family. Be sure to engage in self-care while you continue to care for your kids and your community. The usual coping skills apply: support from friends, exercise, time in nature, meditation—whatever helps you take a deep breath and feeds your spirit.

Finally, reach out for professional support if you are feeling overwhelmed or if your children are struggling. Real heroes know that going it alone—especially as we enter the hectic holiday season—doesn’t make you brave. We are all navigating uncharted waters, and sharing our thoughts, expectations, successes and frustrations with other parents can strengthen our confidence and help steer us on a course that enhances performance, achievement and fulfilment.

Bruce Kaufstein, LCSW, is the Director of Clinical Services at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, Long Island’s leading children’s mental health agency, (516) 626-1971. He will be retiring from the Guidance Center at the end of this year after 37 years of dedicated service.

Helping Kids Handle Trauma, By Rosie Jolene, Guest Blogger

Helping Kids Handle Trauma, By Rosie Jolene, Guest Blogger

Childhood abuse and trauma have been serious concerns for years and, unfortunately, the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the problem. An October 2021 study presented by the American Academy of Pediatrics that analyzed 39,000 children found that 2,064 were victims of suspected child abuse during the period when pandemic restrictions were implemented, representing a significant increase from pre-pandemic. With children aged 5 and above, the average number of abuse cases nearly tripled, from 36 to 103.

Childhood trauma can be caused by a variety of circumstances, including psychological, physical or sexual abuse. It can also be caused by natural disasters, violence in the community or school, bullying, serious accidents, illnesses, loss of a loved one, stress caused by poverty, the deployment of a parent in the military, exposure to substance abuse and, in current times, fears brought on by the pandemic.

In addition, as we’ve seen in recent news reports, young people are increasingly being traumatized by school shootings, like the latest tragedy in Michigan.

Children exhibit signs of trauma in a variety of ways. Things to watch out for include:

• Anger issues
• Attention problems
• Changes in appetite
• Development of new fears
• Increased thoughts about death or safety
• Irritability
• Loss of interest in normal activities
• Problems sleeping
• Sadness
• School refusal
• Physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches

Support Their Process

When helping your child deal with their emotions, it is important to remember that every person is different, and how they process their feelings will vary as well. Maryville University’s human development and family studies program highlights how impactful experiences, such as traumatic ones, can change relationships within the family and affect your child’s development. It’s during this time that they either develop trust or difficulties trusting people moving forward. Let them know that they are not alone. Always take time to listen to them when they speak about their emotions, and never trivialize them. This will ensure that they feel validated and heard.

Talk to them in situations where they feel most comfortable. This can be when you are together on a drive or having a walk through the park. Be sure to also respect their boundaries and never force them to say more than they’re comfortable sharing.

Older children and teenagers might require some time away from stresses like school pressures. As mental wellness reporter Christina Caron writes in the New York Times,  allowing them to take mental  health days will let them practice self-care and counter stress. Fortunately, in New York, students are allowed to take mental health days as they are treated like taking a day off due to physical illness. Supporting your child’s process will encourage their feelings of security around you.


When It’s Time for Therapy

Being there for your children does them a world of good, especially after trauma, but it’s important to acknowledge that they may need professional help during the healing process. Many parents are not properly equipped with the knowledge required to help children who have gone through traumatic events. An experienced therapist can provide your child with the right strategies and coping practices. This will also help them adjust to difficult situations without adopting unhealthy habits.

Psychology Today’s article on trauma mentions how professional psychotherapy is one of the most effective ways for those who have gone through trauma to deal with their feelings. Trauma-informed care helps build resilience and allows people to know which coping mechanisms are healthy and which aren’t.

Traumatic experiences at any age can be difficult to process, but they are even more challenging for children. Seek out help from professionals who specialize in caring for children and teens.

Note: If your child or teen is experiencing any signs of trauma, contact North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center at (516) 626-1971 

When to Contact Authorities

If you suspect your child has gone through a trauma as a result of abuse or neglect, the Child Welfare Information Gateway encourages you to reach out to authorities. Signs can include reclusive behavior or bruises on the body. Bringing in the authorities may also help increase your child’s sense of safety, as they will know that the offender will no longer be able to harm them. Aside from this, it may lessen the chances of the perpetrator mistreating others in the future.

You can also call New York’s statewide number 1-800-342-3720 to make a report. Once it is filed, the central register will contact your local Child Protective Services (CPS) department and an investigation will begin within 24 hours. CPS will then determine whether or not the child is endangered within 60 days. If CPS finds evidence of abuse, the case will typically be brought to a family court. Throughout the whole ordeal, be sure that your child understands what is happening and that they feel safe. – R.J.

Are You All in for Giving Tuesday?

Are You All in for Giving Tuesday?

With Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday behind us, it’s a great time to give the gift of mental health to the kids and families of Long Island!

Today is Giving Tuesday, a global celebration of generosity that provides an opportunity for people around the world to come together by sharing acts of kindness and giving their voice, time, money, goods and advocacy to support communities and causes.

Giving not only supports important causes; it also has benefits to both your physical and mental health!

A National Institutes of Health study showed that when people give back, whether through monetary donations, volunteering or other methods, it releases the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain, creating a positive feeling known as “helper’s high.” It also lowers blood pressure, leading to longer lives.

Whatever your reason for giving back, we are hoping that you show your love and concern for the young people in our community by donating today to North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, where our mission to bring hope and healing is more important than ever before.

In the nearly two years since the pandemic struck, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in calls from schools, hospitals, ERs, pediatricians, parents and others, all reaching out for our help because the children and teens in their care are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and other serious mental health challenges.

With your donations, we are able to make a real difference in the lives of the kids and families in our care. Here’s just a sampling of your dollars at work:

  • $50 covers a crisis intervention.
  • $85 covers one child’s group therapy session.
  • $125 covers one child’s individual therapy session.
  • $250 covers one child’s emergency assessment.
  • $500 covers one month of individual therapy for a child.
  • $1,000 covers eight therapy sessions for an entire family.

Whether you can give $10, $10,000 or somewhere in between, your generosity means the world to kids who are struggling to find help during these difficult times.

So, on this Giving Tuesday, be part of the worldwide movement by donating to the Guidance Center at

Thank you for caring about kids!

We’re Grateful for You!

We’re Grateful for You!

What fills you with an attitude of gratitude?

Kathy Rivera, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center’s Executive Director/CEO, shares what she is grateful for:

“We traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving by gathering with our loved ones, ushering in the warmth and cheer of the holiday season. This year continues to bring unique challenges as no one has been spared the impact of COVID-19. Therefore, giving thanks means so much more these days. 

As the Guidance Center’s new Executive Director and CEO, I am grateful for the dedication and devotion from our donors, board members and staff. Our dedicated therapists and entire team continue to perform acrobatic feats to make the holiday bright for the vulnerable families, young people, each other and the communities we serve. My family and I are grateful to celebrate another Thanksgiving holiday with one another filled with hope and laughter. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

The Guidance Center staff is always grateful to hear from children and families that the services we provide have made a real difference in their lives. That’s especially true now, when the pandemic has created such challenging mental health issues for kids and adults alike. Here are a few comments that we’ve received from parents:

“I am writing this letter to let you know how much we have appreciated the help provided by North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center during this very difficult time. Our son was a sixth grader and was settling in very nicely until the coronavirus struck. Our therapist has been very generous with her time and has helped us navigate our way with the added anxiety created by this virus. We feel lucky to have had her guidance. Thank you for providing such a great service, and stay well.” – Mom of Middle Schooler

“I wanted to take a moment to communicate how absolutely amazing the Pandemic Parent Support Group has been. What started out as a wonderful opportunity with parents of similar-age kids turned into such a magical bonding and loving environment. My isolation and anxiety were calmed, and it gave me strength during very challenging moments. I am forever grateful!” – Pandemic Parent

“North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center can be summed up in a few words: professional, warm, committed and dedicated. I had an absolutely wonderful experience with the staff, therapist and psychiatrist as they gently bring you into the Guidance Center and nurture you all the way to the end. I really appreciate that they welcome women in all stages of motherhood from prenatal to postpartum as I had so much need for assistance during these times. In particular, my therapist was an extremely great listener; she provided invaluable insight and always had practical tools that I could use day-to-day to help deal with stressors. I can’t say enough about how amazing my experience was at the Guidance Center! Thanks so much to you all for picking me back up and helping me to thrive again.” – Maternal Depression Program Client

While Thanksgiving provides a wonderful opportunity to speak with your children and teens about the importance of being grateful, cultivating a strong sense of appreciation is something that can add value to their lives year-round. For some tips, visit our blog by clicking here.

All of us at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving!


The Gift that Gives Back!

The Gift that Gives Back!

North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center counts on donations from generous supporters like you to help us bring hope and healing to the children and families in your community. Today, our work is more important than ever before, as the mental health consequences of the pandemic have created an enormous increase of kids and teens with severe anxiety and depression. Sadly, many young people have also lost loved ones to the virus.

We know you want to do your part to make a difference! That’s why we provide so many ways to give. But at this time of year, one of the best is to consider a Qualified Charitable Distribution, also commonly known as an IRA Charitable Rollover gift.

If you are 70½ years old or older, you can take advantage of a simple way to benefit the Guidance Center and receive tax benefits in return. You can give any amount up to $100,000 per year from your IRA directly to us without increasing your taxable income.*

Here’s How it Works:

Notify your IRA custodian to make a direct transfer of the distribution amount from your IRA to North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center.

  • You take the portion of your required minimum distribution (RMD) that you need as income and transfer the remainder to us, thereby only paying income tax on the needed income.
  • Obtain a written acknowledgment from the qualified charity (different from a tax deduction receipt) to benefit from the tax-free treatment.
These are Your Benefits:

You can transfer up to $100,000 per year to charitable organizations such as the Guidance Center.

  • The distribution to charity counts toward your required minimum distribution for the year.
  • The amount transferred is excluded from your adjusted gross income.
  • Many taxpayers now take the standard deduction, eliminating the need for deductions associated with charitable gifts.
Here’s How to Qualify:

You must be age 70 ½ or older at the time of the gift.

  • Transfers must be made directly from a traditional IRA by your IRA administrator.
  • Gifts must be outright, and the donor cannot receive any goods or services in exchange for their contribution.

Thank you for making the wellbeing of the children and families in our community a priority as you create your philanthropic plans. We are so grateful for your support!

*Please consult your tax advisor to confirm how you would benefit from this opportunity.

Parenting Advice for Military Families

Parenting Advice for Military Families

Thursday is Veteran’s Day, when we honor all the brave men and women who have served our country. In addition, all of November is Military Family Appreciation Month, when families are recognized for their commitment and contributions in support of our military and nation.

Our country is facing one of the most challenging times in our history, as the pandemic continues to impact our children, who are experiencing uncertainty, anxiety and depression.

Sadly, some children are dealing with the grief of having lost parents, grandparents or other beloved family members.

For military families, these worries and losses are compounded by unique challenges. Children in these families often must deal with lengthy separations from their parents—difficult on their own, but add to that the fear that a loved one may not come home, and it’s clear why these kids are under enormous stress and experiencing heightened anxiety and depression.

Plus, military families relocate 10 times more often than civilian families—on average, every two or three years, so children face separation not only from their parents, but from their friends.

Not surprising, studies show that one third of school-age military children show behaviors such as being anxious, worrying often and crying more frequently.

Below are 20 tips from Military One Source to help military families stay strong:

TIP 1: Up your play time

Take just 15 minutes a day to play one-on-one with your child doing what he or she wants. Engaging in positive activities together reduces the need for negative discipline.

TIP 2: Speak up about your love

Let the children in your life know how much you appreciate and care for them. All children deserve to have someone who encourages them and loves them unconditionally.

TIP 3: Link up with a strong social network

Up your resilience by connecting with people who support you and make you feel good – friends, family, neighbors, religious groups, playgroups and parent groups that support families. Be sure to reach out to your installation’s Military and Family Support Center for local activities and support offerings.

TIP 4: Power up parenting. Put down the phone.

Children learn more and feel more secure when you spend unplugged, face-to-face time together. Plus, they need your attention to keep them safe. Distracted parenting is linked to an increase in injuries and accidents at home. Learn more about keeping your children safe by being actively present with them.

TIP 5: Stress up? Calm down

Too much stress makes it hard to be an effective parent. Learning how to manage stress can improve your happiness and provides a model for children to manage their own stress. Military OneSource offers stress release tips and recommended wellness apps to help cope with stress management. Reach out to your local Military and Family Support Center to find out about their available stress management classes.

TIP 6: Cuddle up to your baby

Bonding with your baby is vital. The attention you give now will last forever and help your baby grow into a healthy and happy child and adult. Check out easy ways to bond with your baby and contact your local New Parent Support Program.

TIP 7: Study up on safe sleeping

Do you know the rules for keeping a baby safe during sleep time? Babies should sleep on their backs in a safety crib and dressed in sleep clothing with no blankets or pillows. Get more information about how to create safe sleeping environments for infants.

TIP 8: Talk it up with your teen

Respect, talk and engage with your teen as much as you can. Doing things together, face-to-face time at dinner, showing affection and interest – all these can help keep teens safe and healthy. Get more ideas for positive parenting your teen. Military OneSource also offers health and wellness coaching for teens.

TIP 9: Sign up your kids for fun

The military has many recreational opportunities, camps and more for youth and teens – through your installation’s youth center4-H military partnerships and Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA and Department of Defense summer camps.

TIP 10: Study up on powerful parenting

Powerful parenting can be learned throughout your child’s life. Pick up tips and ideas by talking to experts like counselors, doctors, teachers, family and friends. Subscribe to a good online newsletter. Read or take a class that is offered by the Family Advocacy Program. Classes are available for new or expectant military parents. You can also take advantage of Thrive, a free, online parenting-education program from the Department of Defense partnership with the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness at Penn State. Thrive offers evidence-based, positive-parenting practices for children from birth to age 18.

TIP 11: Pick up the right foods. 

Check out the MyPlate website or the Start Simple with MyPlate app for help with healthy eating, strategies for a picky eater and ways to customize a healthy cookbook for your family. You can also explore these healthy snack tips.

TIP 12: Step up your activity.

Download the free Moving to THRIVE resource with suggestions for physical activities and play time.

TIP 13: Talk Up a Positive Parent

Compliment a father – someone you know or someone in public – on something positive you see him do with his kids. Dads contribute uniquely to children’s development (and could use the props). Moms, too!

TIP 14: Prop up another parent

A helping hand from a neighbor or friend can make a huge difference for a family under stress. Offer to babysit for the child of a friend, neighbor or family member, even if it’s just to help them rest or recharge for an hour or two. It’s also important to support a military family in the middle of a move. Check out these ways to support a MilFam before their move.

TIP 15: Thumbs up for military

Military life presents unique challenges and opportunities. Smart parents take full advantage of perks like child care, tutoring, employment support and even 24/7 counseling. Call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 to help you get connected.

TIP 16: Problems add up over time

Child abuse and neglect have long-term consequences for children, families and communities. That’s why it’s important to learn how to protect your children from health risks by building family resilience.

TIP 17: Stand up and protect your teen

Nobody likes to think about the dangers of bullyingcyberbullying, teen dating violence, sexual assault or even child trafficking – but it can happen in any family. Learn the signs, symptoms and how to keep your teen safe.

TIP 18: Help get tots set up for deployment

Babies and toddlers can sense stress in their homes. As a caregiver, you can help them manage their strong emotions. Attend to your own emotional health as well, so you can better care for your children. Help your child prepare for deployment and explore Sesame Street for Military Families. The Talk, Listen, Connect resources are designed to help military families and their young children cope with deployments, changes and grief.

TIP 19: Listen up if your child is LGBTQ+

For youth who identify as LGBTQ+, fears of rejection are at the front of their minds. Acceptance from the family can have a positive effect, not only on a youth’s self-esteem, but also on their health and well-being. Listen, talk and learn more.

TIP 20: Step up and help a child

Strong communities strengthen families. You can help by being informed, attentive and supportive. If you are concerned about the safety or well-being of a child, help is readily available. Military OneSource has connections to reporting lines, the Family Advocacy Program and other places to turn. Find out how to report suspected child abuse.

Remember, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center is here for your family! Call us at (516) 626-1971 for help.

When Grandparents Take the Lead Role

When Grandparents Take the Lead Role

Seeing grandparents walking hand in hand with their grandchildren is a heartwarming sight. But our usual assumptions about the relationship may be inaccurate. While we tend to believe that the grandparents are probably spending a few hours babysitting the kids, more and more are the primary caregivers, with their grandchildren as their full-time responsibility.

A July 2018 research update from the Butler Center for Research cites the most recent figures available from the U.S. Census, which indicate that in 2016, 2.5 million grandparents were responsible for the basic needs of one or more grandchildren under 18 years old living with them. Nearly 6 million children under 18, with 2.6 million of those under age 6, were living in their grandparents’ household. 

Why the increase? Although this isn’t a new phenomenon—one prominent example is President Barack Obama, who was raised largely by his grandparents—part of the reason the figures have risen is believed to be a result of the opioid epidemic. According to the CDC, drug overdose deaths in the United States have more than tripled from 1999 to 2015, and often leave children parentless.

Other factors include incarceration, death of a parent or parents, or child abuse. 

There are many concerns for these grandparent caregivers, including economic problems, as well as emotional factors, says Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, Director of the Guidance Center’s Leeds Place. “These grandparents are often isolated, struggling with health and financial issues that add additional stress to the total family,” she says.

[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

To serve local grandparents who are in this situation, the Guidance Center created a program called C-GRASP, which stands for Caregiver Grandparent Respite and Support Program. Through C-GRASP, we provide support and education for grandparents who are the primary caregivers of their young grandchildren.

“Through partnerships with a team of supportive local entities, we provide the grandparents with a variety of services, including respite and peer support activities, counseling, clothing, food, housing assistance, transportation and school advocacy,” says Dr. Taylor-Walthrust. “Those grandparents who take part in C-GRASP feel supported by the services they receive that are designed to meet their individual needs. They also have the opportunity to develop a social network with other grandparents who are experiencing the same life challenge.”

To learn more about C-GRASP, contact the Guidance Center at (516) 626-1971.  


Staff Profile: Bruce Kaufstein

Staff Profile: Bruce Kaufstein

After nearly four decades of dedicated service, our Director of Clinical Services, Bruce Kaufstein, is retiring at the end of this year, leaving behind many grateful kids, families and co-workers who have benefited from his abundant wisdom and compassion.

Kaufstein, LCSW, who interned at the Guidance Center in 1976 before joining the staff in December 1984, spent the bulk of his career working with adolescents, helping them grow and heal not only through traditional talk therapy but also with a life-changing initiative that he developed some 25 years ago: the Wilderness Respite Program, which takes at-risk adolescents on hikes and other nature activities that foster individual growth, leadership skills, self-esteem and friendships while also promoting environmental stewardship.

“Out in the natural world, in places like Bear Mountain, the teens become completely immersed and realize they have no choice but to respond to the challenges that arise, both physical and emotional,” says Kaufstein. “Sometimes they can meet those challenges independently or with a little help from the leaders, and sometimes their struggles trigger a group response to support and enable them to push on and complete the challenge of the day.”

Kaufstein, who leads the outings and is an avid hiker, explains that many of the teens have issues like autism, ADHD and anxiety, and therefore have trouble sitting still. “Out on the trails, they learn to take one step at a time to successfully complete the day’s goal,” he says. “They learn how to be independent and also how to work together. It’s so affirming for kids who rarely get much praise in school.” 

He adds, “Most hikes are not characterized by struggles, but are full days of conversing, laughing, photographing nature and making friends. Since the pandemic, the value and need for interaction with peers has never been more palpable.”

Kaufstein was also the driving force behind our onsite organic gardens, where children and teens learn lessons in cooperation, responsibility and patience.“The kids take the lead in planting, watering and harvesting, and then take the produce to be donated to soup kitchens,” he explains. “It gives them an enormous sense of accomplishment and pride.”

Bruce Kaufstein speaking at our 9/11 Memorial Garden this fall.  

Transforming Lives 

Dr. Reena Nandi, Director of Psychiatric Services, says, “Bruce can bring calm to any situation, and he has truly transformed the lives of hundreds of children and families. He’s also been a mentor to many staff members over the years, making them feel supported and cared for. He will be sorely missed.”

Working with Guidance Center clients and their families has been a privilege, says Kaufstein, who plans to spend his retirement years hiking, playing piano and writing anecdotal stories about his experiences with adolescents. “It has been a sacred and solemn experience to positively impact the lives of so many people,” he says. “The entire staff, from the front desk people who greet clients to the senior supervisors, are so supportive of each other and of the mission. It has been incredibly gratifying to spend my career at the Guidance Center.”

Donor Profile: Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

Donor Profile: Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

Photo: Jana North, President of the UUCSR and Terry Bain, Member of UUCSR’s Board of Trustees.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, the generous and caring members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock (UUCSR) wanted to provide immediate financial assistance to local organizations that were impacted by the crisis.

They asked congregation members to suggest their favorite nonprofits and then set up a committee to vet the nominees. Fortunately, many UUCSR members were familiar with the lifesaving work of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center.

After reaching out to us and hearing about our COVID-19 response efforts, UUCSR donated $10,000 to the Guidance Center and then an additional $50,000 in support of our work at a time when our services are needed more than ever. Over the course of their granting periods, UUCSR awarded $670,000 to a variety of local nonprofits to help them respond to the pandemic.

Greatest Needs

According to Terry Bain, a member of UUCSR’s Board of Trustees, the grant guidelines focused on food insecurity, homelessness, loss of parents or guardians, mental health and educational disadvantages. 

“We wanted to address the areas where we thought the need would be the greatest, and in the beginning, everyone thought about food banks,” says Bain. “But by the time we got to the second round of funding, so many nonprofits were telling us about mental health issues that came out in their clients. PTSD was surfacing because the long, grinding time of the pandemic has caused such stress on everybody.”

Jana North, president of the UUCSR, says, “Of all the names that were proposed, your name rose to the top immediately. The Guidance Center is well known for doing this important work to provide services to families struggling with depression, anxiety and other issues related to COVID.”

Faith in Action

In describing UUCSR’s philanthropy efforts, North says, “We believe that with great wealth comes great responsibility. Part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist is to put our faith into action, and with each grant we give, we see our faith going out into the community.”

North adds that UUs “believe strongly that we are only a small part of the world around us, and our principles respect and honor the worth and dignity of each individual. We are here on this Earth only for a short time, and in that time we want to take care of each other and the planet.”

A Multifaceted Congregation

UUCSR (, which has about 500 members, has been holding its Sunday services virtually since the beginning of the pandemic, though some recent services have provided an onsite, outdoor option. 

The congregation is a very active one, with a variety of programs, committees and events, some open to the public. For example, on the second Friday night of each month, UUCSR presents “Soulful Sundown,” a musical collaboration between Rev. Jennifer L. Brower and the Cosmic Orchestra, often with special guest musicians. 

Of its many opportunities for involvement, UUCSR features a Women’s Group, Social Justice Group, Green Sanctuary Committee and LGBTQ+ Group, among others. Activities range from yoga and quilting to book discussions and bridge.

“Unitarian Universalists believe in offering respect and dignity to everyone and this includes those in a mental health crisis situation,” says Rev. Dr. Natalie Fenimore, Lead Minister. “The congregation has long sought to support mental health, spiritual health, well-being and healing.”

In fact, the UUCSR Mental Health group holds programs and discussions to broaden general awareness and increase the understanding of mental health issues and sponsors a mental health support group which met at the congregation pre-pandemic. Additionally, the congregation has provided funding for training the police in mental health crisis intervention. 

Valued Partners

Kathy Rivera, the Guidance Center’s Executive Director, says, “We are so grateful to the members of UUCSR for choosing us as a grantee. Their awareness of the importance of the mental health of our children and families during the pandemic is clear evidence of their dedication to the community, and we are proud to call them one of our valued donors and partners.” 

Bain of UUCSR’s board says, “It’s very challenging for parents to know where to turn for help. The fact that the Guidance Center is out there helping people is just remarkable and so needed.”

To learn more about supporting North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, contact Director of Development Lauren McGowan at (516) 626-1971, ext. 320.

Helping Your Children Build Resilience to Substance Use

Helping Your Children Build Resilience to Substance Use

From SAMHSA, the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration

For many parents having their child return to school feels more significant this fall, with many schools opening for in-person learning following COVID-19 related closures or disruptions over the past 18 months. And while schools adapted to bring students back into the school building, parents and students had to navigate the challenges and emotions that accompany this transition.

As a parent, you may still be helping your child to process their feelings and concerns as they adjust to being back in school. By keeping the lines of communication open and giving them a safe space to share how they feel and ask any questions they may have, you will give your child the support they need to adjust to their new routine and thrive in the school environment throughout the year. SAMHSA has resources available to help parents, teachers, and schools navigate the transition back to the classroom.

Regular and open conversations with your child are beneficial any time of year and are an opportunity to address a variety of important issues. The month of October is recognized as National Youth Substance Use Prevention Monthand is an opportunity to join a broader effort to reduce substance use among our Nation’s youth. As a parent you can make a real difference by talking with your child about these issues and keeping the lines of communication open for continued conversations. Although it may not always seem like it, children do hear the concerns of their parents and other adult role models, which is why it’s so important to discuss early and often the risks of using alcohol and other drugs.

SAMHSA’s “Talk.  They Hear You.” campaign recently launched a new mobile app that helps parents and caregivers prepare for some of the most important conversations they may ever have with their kids- conversations about alcohol and other drugs. The app shows parents and caregivers how to turn everyday situations into opportunities to talk with their children, and equips them with the necessary skills, confidence, and knowledge to start and continue these conversations as their kids get older. There is even a feature within the app where you can practice having the conversations, so you feel more comfortable when the time comes.

While alcohol and other drug use may not be your top-of-the-mind issues right now, there is no better time than this month to start having these talks with your kids. In fact, a recent NIH-funded study found that the overall rate of drug use among 10-14 year-olds remained relatively stable during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The study also found that teens experiencing pandemic-related stress, depression, or anxiety, or hardship during the pandemic, were more likely to use alcohol or drugs.

The study also found that youth stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms were all positively associated with the use of any substance, and that several pandemic-related factors increased adolescents’ likelihood of substance use. For example, youth who reported feeling “extreme” stress from the uncertainty associated with the pandemic were 2.4 times more likely to use any substance than youth who reported “very slight” stress.

It’s normal to have some anxiety of your own this time of year, and maybe you feel like you don’t always know the right thing to say to your child about alcohol and other drug use. Remember that you don’t have to do it alone! Check out these resources to help adults start—and keep up—the conversation about the dangers of drinking alcohol and using other drugs at a young age:

Visit for additional “Talk. They Hear You.” campaign information and resources, and the SAMHSA Store to order campaign materials.

Staffer Steps Up for our Garden

Staffer Steps Up for our Garden

North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center has a great team, all of whom are dedicated to going above and beyond for each and every client. Ricardo Castillo, one of our social workers, was determined that the organic garden in our Roslyn Heights office would not be a victim of pandemic neglect.

He explains: “We use the garden to help kids learn lessons about responsibility, self-confidence, teamwork and growth. But since the pandemic hit, we have been seeing most of our clients through telehealth, so they weren’t able to be onsite to tend to the garden, and they really missed the experience. I decided to use an iPad and Zoom with them when I planted and harvested from the garden, so they could feel like they were a part of the process.”

Castillo worked on the garden through the summer and early fall, and it was a beautiful sight. “In 2020 and this year, we had a great crop of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries and even watermelons,” says Castillo, who often dropped by on Sundays to volunteer his time.“We’re truly proud of our organic garden program, and especially grateful to Ricardo for all his work to keep the garden growing and to engage our clients in the process,” says Kathy Rivera, Guidance Center Executive Director. “Our staff always puts the needs of kids first.”

Ask the Guidance Center Experts

Ask the Guidance Center Experts

In the September 2021 column that ran in Blank Slate Media, our staff responds to parents’ concerns that their son may be suicidal.

In this monthly column, therapists from North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center answer your questions on issues related to parenting, mental health and children’s well-being. To submit a question, email

Question: We are terribly concerned about our 16-year-old son. Although he is back in school, he has little interest in his classes, and it’s difficult to get him to go to school most days. He’s decided not to try out for the basketball team, which used to be his favorite thing in the world. He’s also stopped reaching out to his friends and become very isolated. When we’ve asked him about all of this, his answer is usually a shrug of the shoulders and some version of “What’s the point, anyhow?” We are incredibly worried and not sure what to do.Feeling Helpless

Dear Feeling Helpless: There may be no scarier words for a parent to hear from their child than “Some days I just don’t want to go on any longer,” or a similar sentiment. The reality is that children and teens are under more stress than ever, with suicidal thinking and suicide attempts on the rise – plus, the isolation and fear surrounding the pandemic has created a dramatic increase in severe depression and anxiety.

The facts are that suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24, and more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects and other diseases combined.

While the problem isn’t new, the pandemic has exacerbated it. Kids’ normal routines were upended in so many ways. They lost milestones like proms, graduations, family gatherings, sports, afterschool clubs and other activities that are important for their development. Even though many of those events have resumed, they are still living with the uncertainty that everything could change at a moment’s notice. 

Here are some of the warning signs that your child or teen may be at risk of suicide: 

  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Mood swings
  • Engaging in risky or self-destructive behavior
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • School refusal
  • Being depressed and crying often
  • Giving away possessions
  • Posting suicidal thoughts on the Internet
  • Talking about death and not being around anymore
  • Cutting themselves
  • Aggressiveness or irritability

Your first step should be talking honestly with your son about how he is feeling and communicate your concern in a loving, non-judgmental way.

Ask him directly if he has thoughts of suicide. The idea that talking about suicide will make your child more likely to act upon it is a myth. In fact, the opposite is true. 

Let him know there is no shame in feeling depressed or sad and that he is not alone, especially given the unprecedented period we are experiencing. 

Also ask him if he has a plan for suicide, since someone who has made a plan is at a higher risk and requires urgent attention. If the answer is yes, monitor him closely and seek immediate mental health services, either through the emergency room or an urgent mental health care facility. One option is Nassau County’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Team, 516-227-TALK.

It is very important that you consult a mental health professional for an assessment. Reassure your son that getting help is not a sign of weakness, but rather shows strength, and that despite his current state of mind, feelings don’t last forever. Allow him to give feedback on what he thinks might be helpful in his treatment.

Nassau County residents can contact us at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which serves young people from birth through age 24. 
We promise to see urgent cases within 24 to 48 hours. If, however, you fear that he is in imminent danger, bring him to the emergency room for an immediate evaluation. 

North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center’s Douglas S. Feldman Suicide Prevention Project is designed to address high-risk cases with a thorough evaluation for suicide risk, therapy and a comprehensive treatment planTo schedule an appointment, call us at (516) 626-1971 or email

Parenting, the Second Time Around

Parenting, the Second Time Around

By Beth Whitehouse, Newsday, September 7, 2021

When COVID-19 took the life of 36-year-old Krystal Colman in April, Christina Colman, 60, of Coram, inherited a precious gift: her grandson Kacen, 2. 

Colman was hospitalized with the coronavirus at the same time as her daughter, both in Stony Brook Hospital just after Easter. Krystal previously had pleurisy, an inflammation of the membranes that surround the lungs. When the elder Colman heard a “Code Blue” — which signifies a hospital emergency in a certain location — she said to her nurse, “That’s my daughter’s room.” Says Colman: “I wasn’t there when she took her last breath. I was beyond shocked.” 

Colman, who works as an office assistant at Stony Brook Hospital, immediately went to court to get custody of her grandson; she plans to raise him with the help of another of her daughters, Jasmine, 31, an elementary school nurse. 

“I’m not going to tell anyone that every day is peachy and sunny when you’re trying to raise a 2½-year-old,” Colman says. It’s especially challenging when mourning the loss of a daughter at the same time the child is mourning the loss of his single-parent mother. “It’s overwhelming.”

Jasmine, Christina and Kacen Colman in Coram on
Jasmine, Christina and Kacen Colman in Coram on Aug. 3. 
Credit: Raychel Brightman

But through word-of-mouth, Colman heard of a grandparent caregivers’ support group run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. The group offers PASTA classes — it stands for Parenting the Second Time Around. The eight-week curriculum offers support to those being thrust into the new role and discusses child development, discipline and family law legal issues.

“It’s been a while since a lot of the grandparents have had 2-year-olds, 8-year-olds, teenagers in their home,” says Dinah Torres Castro, a bilingual family well-being educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension. They need to feel they can do this, she says. 


Cornell also collaborates with the Amityville-based not-for-profit Hope For Youth to offer family engagement activities through a kinship caregiver grant. In August, the group resumed in-person events such as movies and field trips; a family picnic was held Aug. 30 at the Suffolk County Farm, just before Grandparents’ Day on Sept. 12. “Those things are very important when you’re going through these kinds of situations,” Colman says.Sign up for Newsday’s Family newsletter

The North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center also runs a free program called C-GRASP, Caregiver-Grandparent Respite and SupportProgram, for grandparents who are caregivers due to abandonment, substance abuse issues, incarceration or mental illness, says Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, director of the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center’s Leed Place in Westbury. C-GRASP is run in conjunction with the Town of North Hempstead for caregiver residents 60 or older, she says.

It’s important for grandparents to see they’re not alone in what they’re doing for their families, and to be alerted to resources available to them. Grandparent caregivers often feel isolated, Taylor-Walthrust says.

“They have given up their retirement to take care of children. They don’t have a lot of social opportunities themselves.” The pandemic made their isolation and challenges worse, says Taylor-Walthrust.

“Many of them are not technologically savvy,” she says, needing guidance, for instance, with helping children to log on to their Chromebooks during at home schooling. They also initially had challenges getting food, and C-GRASP volunteers helped get supplies delivered to their doorsteps.


The hardest part for grandparent caregivers can often be financial, Torres Castro says. Extra mouths to feed, school supplies, doctors’ appointments — “it can be very costly,” Torres Castro says.

Melinda Stephenson, 45, an insurance verifier, and her husband, Dexter, 50, a care coordinator, of Hempstead are currently caring for five of their grandchildren, ages 8, 7, 5, 3, and 1 — after already raising seven children of their own. “Financially, it’s sometimes a struggle to take care of them, but we do it,” she says. She’s been able to talk to Torres Castro about such issues, she says.

The opportunity to talk to others is also valuable for Colman. “That’s not my greatest strength, talking about my daughter. When I start talking about my daughter, I turn into mush,” Colman says. Her daughter and grandson had already lived with her, so she feels Krystal’s absence even more strongly. Her grandson will often want to spend time in his mother’s former bedroom, Colman says.

Colman has done some virtual events and looked forward to meeting the other families in person with Kacen at the Aug. 30 family picnic, which she expects to help them move forward with healing.

“People need people. We’ll be able to hug each other, and if we can’t, we can at least hold hands. We’ll be able to laugh together, cry together, share together.”

By Beth @BethWhitehouse1 

Beth Whitehouse writes about families, parenting and great things to do with the kids on Long Island. She’s been a Newsday editor and shared a 1997 Newsday staff Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800.

Top Photo Credit: Christina Colman, 60, of Coram, sits on the porch with her grandson Kacen, 2. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Join the Guidance Center Team

Join the Guidance Center Team

With the continuing challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, more children and teens than ever before are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which has been serving the community for nearly seven decades, is responding to the need – but to accommodate the increase, we are seeking dedicated, talented people to join our team, both in clinical roles and in office staff.

Kathy Rivera, who took on the role of Guidance Center Executive Director/CEO in June 2021 and has worked in the mental health field for more than two decades, says that the agency has “a stellar reputation” throughout the area.

“The Guidance Center is regarded as one of the premier children’s mental health organizations not only on Long Island but in the entire Tri-State/metro region,” says Rivera. “The agency is known for its highly experienced therapists who are specially trained to work with children, adolescents and their families, and also for its cutting-edge programs that have served as a model for programs across the nation.”

The Guidance Center puts values such as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at the forefront, both in its therapeutic model as well as its employee culture. The staff includes bilingual, bicultural therapists and outreach workers who serve the needs of the diverse Long Island community.

Specialty programs such as the Latina Girls ProjectWilderness Respite ProgramDiane Goldberg Maternal Depression Program,  Good Beginnings for BabiesC-GRASP (Caregiver Grandparent Respite and Support Program) and school-based Intensive Services Program (ISP) have earned the Guidance Center its reputation for innovation, making it a great place for mental health professionals to expand their skillset.

In addition, the organization offers extensive benefits, including health insurance, generous paid vacation time and more.

So, if you are seeking a career in a warm, welcoming environment that encourages employee growth, please contact Kiera Cohen, Director of Human Resources, at, or view contact information for specific positions on our careers page

Open Positions at the Guidance Center

Here is a sampling of current job openings, both for mental health professionals and general office staff. 

  • Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
  • Substance Use Counselor
  • Social Work Supervisor
  • Clinical Social Worker
  • Bilingual Social Worker of Mental Health Counselor
  • Intake Coordinator
  • Front Desk/Support Services Agent
  • Youth Employment Counselor
  • Social Media Intern

Teens Are Advocating for Mental Health Days Off School

Teens Are Advocating for Mental Health Days Off School

By Christina Caron, New York Times, August 23, 2021

The decline in the mental health of children and adolescents has led to new laws allowing kids to attend to their own self-care.

By the time Ben Ballman reached his junior year in high school he was busier — and more anxious — than he had ever been.

“I had moments where it felt like the whole world was coming down on me,” he said. “It was definitely a really difficult time.”

Before the pandemic shut everything down, his day started at 6:30 a.m., when he woke up to get ready for school. Next came several Advanced Placement courses; then either soccer practice or his job at a plant nursery; studying for the SAT; and various extracurricular activities. He often didn’t start his homework until 11 p.m., and finally went to bed three hours later. Every day it was the same grueling schedule.

“It’s not even that I was going above and beyond, it was, ‘This is the bare minimum,’” said Ben, now 18 and a recent graduate of Winston Churchill High School in Montgomery County, Md. “It’s like a pressure cooker that’s locked down. There’s nowhere to escape. Eventually you just kind of burst at some point, or, hopefully, you can get through it.”

Faced with high stress levels among adolescents and a mental health crisis that includes worsening suicide rates, some states are now allowing students to declare a mental health day.

In the last two years alone, ArizonaColoradoConnecticut,IllinoisMaineNevadaOregon and Virginia have passed bills permitting children to be absent from school for mental or behavioral health reasons, efforts that were often aided or spearheaded by students.

And in March, Utah decided that a “valid excuse” for a student’s absence will now include “mental or behavioral health,” broadening an earlier definition that referred to mental illness. The legislator who sponsored the bill, Representative Mike Winder, a Republican, told the television station KUTV in February that it was his daughter, then a senior at Southern Utah University, who suggested the idea.

Late last year the advocacy group Mental Health America surveyed teenagers about the top three things that would be most helpful for their mental health. More than half of the respondents cited the ability to take a mental health break or absence from either school or work. And in a Harris Poll of more than 1,500 teenagers conducted in May of last year, 78 percent of those surveyed said schools should support mental health days to allow students to prioritize their health.

Ben, the recent graduate, said that as a high school student he had spoken with classmates who were struggling and needed support but didn’t know where to turn. So he organized a coalition of students to improve mental health services for students in his state. This year he spent months supporting a mental health day bill in Maryland, but it stalled in the State Senate.

There is some debate over what constitutes a mental health day and how best to spend it. Just as there isn’t a precise definition for adults, there isn’t a consensus on what it means for children, either. Typically, it is a day to rest, recalibrate and take a break from your regular routine. Unless a state or a school district outlines specific requirements, families can interpret the term broadly.

Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, medical director of the Child Mind Institute and a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in New York City, views mental health days as a joyous occasion: an opportunity to have fun.

Ideally, you can use mental health days as a way to celebrate your child’s efforts in school, he said.

For example, maybe your child just finished a big project, handed it in, and the next day she said: “I’m exhausted. I want a mental health day.” In that case, taking the day off is “perfectly appropriate,” Dr. Koplewicz said.

But don’t use mental health days to help your child avoid situations at school that are making them uncomfortable, he cautioned.

Instead, try to pinpoint where that anxiety is stemming from. “Are they avoiding something because it is too challenging? Are they being hurt in some way?” he asked.

If your child doesn’t want to be in school at all or is showing symptoms of depression, like insomnia, oversleeping or a lack of interest in normal activities, take time to have a deeper conversation about what’s going on. Depending on the problem, you might need a longer-term solution rather than simply a day or two to recharge.

If your child needs time off because they are suffering from crippling anxiety or experiencing a behavioral health crisis, for example, it might not be appropriate for schools or families to label that as a “mental health day” — in fact, doing so might inadvertently minimize mental health disorders, Dr. Koplewicz said.

“Sick days are sick days, whether it’s physical or mental,” he added.

Taking a day to relax and recharge can be useful at any age, including for preschoolers, who are also susceptible to stress and exhaustion, said Jennifer Rothman, the senior manager of youth and young adult initiatives at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Everyone has mental health, everyone,” she said. “Our kids are faced with so many things on a daily basis.”

And that was the case well before Covid-19. The state of children’s mental health has worsened over the last decade. Between 2009 and 2019, an increasing percentage of American youth reported feeling sad or hopeless for at least two weeks “to the degree that they could not engage in their usual activities,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported; and 70 percent of teenagers surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2018 said anxiety and depression were major problems among their peers.

The percentage of students who seriously considered suicide or made a suicide plan has also risen in the last decade. And suicide has become the second leading cause of death among adolescents.

The pandemic has further exacerbated some of these problems. Nearly half of the parents surveyed in January by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital said that their teenagers had shown signs of either a new or worsening mental health condition during the pandemic. And a C.D.C. report found that the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds visiting emergency rooms for mental health reasons rose 31 percent for most of 2020 compared with 2019.

In New York, California and Florida — homes to some of the nation’s largest school districts — there are no state laws specifying that children can take a mental health day. Legislators in each of these states have tried to change that, but those efforts have fallen flat.

In the New York City school system, which has more than 1 million students, a day off for mental or behavioral health reasons “would be treated like any other sick day,” Nathaniel Styer, a New York City Department of Education spokesman, said.

The phrase “mental health day” might make some kids and parents uncomfortable. With that in mind, the school board in Montgomery County, Md., decided that it will excuse absences taken for “student illness and well-being,” starting in the new school year.

“We didn’t want to call it a mental health day, because we know there is still stigma around that,” Karla Silvestre, the school board vice president, told Education Week in June.

Schools are also experimenting with other methods beyond mental health days to help students cope with their daily stressors. The Jordan School District in South Jordan, Utah, is using “wellness rooms,” where students can decompress for 10 minutes if they are feeling overwhelmed. And some schools in Colorado have created “oasis rooms,” a student lounge staffed with peer counselors and other resources.

Melanie Zhou, 19, who attended high school in Highlands Ranch, Colo., worked alongside other students to create the oasis rooms after a friend died by suicide.

“When my friend passed away, I had no idea how to grieve properly,” she said.

Much like Ben, Melanie felt that academics were the priority at her school, not self-care. And at home, “mental heath was not talked about very clearly or openly,” she added.

One advantage of declaring a “mental health day” and recognizing its importance at the state level is that — ideally — using this kind of language can help families start to have more open conversations about subjects related to mental health, and potentially reduce some of the stigma associated with self-care, Ms. Rothman said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a diagnosable illness, it just means that you are taking a break,” she added.

What Simone Biles Has Taught Us

What Simone Biles Has Taught Us

Published originally in Anton Media, Parenting Plus column, August 20 2021, By Kathy Rivera

After working in the mental health field for more than two decades, it should have come as no shock to me when I read some of the negative responses to Simone Biles’ announcement that she was pulling out of the Olympics team competition due to anxiety and other emotional challenges—but it stung, nevertheless.

On social media, TV and other outlets, outraged commenters called her everything from a coward to a quitter to a spoiled brat. Texas deputy attorney general Aaron Reitz went so far as say that Biles was a “national embarrassment.”

Former British TV host Piers Morgan tweeted, “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models, not this nonsense.”

Would these naysayers have been so harsh if Biles had pulled out because of a broken foot or burst appendix? 

These comments are a clear sign that stigma surrounding mental health issues is still pervasive. Fortunately, however, there was some very positive news: The level of support for Biles from other athletes, celebrities, public figures and everyday people far outweighed the negativity, with many describing her frankness in discussing mental health as brave and inspiring.

Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who has been open about his own mental health challenges, put it this way: “We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect. It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to go through ups and down and emotional rollercoasters. The biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help when we go through those times.”

While few of our children are under the intense public scrutiny as are Biles, Phelps, tennis star Naomi Osaka or the many celebrities who have been discussing their mental health issues, they still face enormous pressures, especially given the disruption and fear brought on by the pandemic.

At North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, we’ve been receiving a growing number of calls from parents concerned about their children and teens’ mental health. Many describe classic signs of depression and anxiety: withdrawal from friends, lack of interest in activities that normally gave them pleasure, mood swings, agitation, sleeplessness (or oversleeping), changes to eating patterns, substance abuse—even thoughts of suicide.

While mental health issues existed in kids long before the pandemic struck (an estimated one in five youth experience a mental illness), I believe we are on the verge of a crisis that may well surpass anything we’ve ever experienced. For many young people, their very foundations were shaken apart during the pandemic, with fear and hopelessness about the future enveloping them to the point of unending despair. 

How can you help? The situation with Simone Biles has provided an opportunity for families to discuss stigma and for caregivers to teach kids that no one should ever feel ashamed if they are feeling sad, anxious or emotionally overwhelmed. You can tell your children that Simone was brave to speak out and put her mental health first. You can also let them know that you are there for them, without judgment and with an open mind and heart, whenever they are feeling down.

You can also encourage your schools, religious organizations, medical professionals and other community resources to include discussions about mental health and provide resources for kids who are having difficulties. Don’t hesitate to reach out to mental health organizations like ours for information and support. 

Bottom line: It’s everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves about mental health and to stand up to stigma. Let’s use the opportunity surrounding Simone Biles’ brave decision to open up about her struggles to provide our kids with the knowledge, support and understanding they will need during the challenges that lie ahead.

Kathy Rivera, LCSW, is the new Executive Director/CEO of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, Long Island’s leading non-profit mental health organization which has been serving our community for nearly 70 years. The Guidance Center never turns anyone away for inability to pay. To get help for your child or to support the organization’s life-saving work, call (516) 626-1971 or visit

The Ultimate Loss: A Family’s Story Of Addiction In The Age Of Killer Drugs

The Ultimate Loss: A Family’s Story Of Addiction In The Age Of Killer Drugs

Last month, family and friends of Jason Witler, a 2011 graduate of Syosset High School, gathered at the high school baseball field to celebrate the life of a young man who died this past April from an accidental overdose of a drug laced with fentanyl. The event, the Jason Daniel Witler Memorial Home Run Derby, raised funds to support the work of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, Long Island’s leading children’s mental health agency, which has an outpatient adolescent chemical dependency program.

Three of Jason’s closest friends—Ashley Sullo, Jordan Slavin and Max Ferro—came up with the idea of the Home Run Derby shortly after Jason’s death, explains Slavin, who had been close to Witler since kindergarten.
“Several of us talked about getting together to share memories of Jason, but we realized that he would want us to do something to make people in the community happy, because he loved to make everyone laugh and smile,” Slavin said. “We also wanted to raise money for an organization that was important to Jason and his family that provides help for people struggling with addiction.”

Legislator Joshua. A Lafazan

The trio asked their Syosset High School classmate and Nassau County Legislator Josh Lafazan to help, and he was quick to join the effort, which drew more than 100 attendees.
“I am overwhelmed with gratitude to all who came out to show support and participate in the Jason Daniel Witler Memorial Home Run Derby,” Lafazan said. “Working with community partners, we were able to raise thousands of dollars in Jason’s memory to support the critical work that North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center does on Long Island.”

The Journey Of Addiction
According to Bonnie Witler, Jason’s mother, her son’s addiction issues began in his mid-teens. “One night, Jason came home after being out with his friends and my daughter came running into my room and said, ‘Mom, come downstairs! Jason’s barred out.’ I had no idea what she meant, but later learned it meant he was high on Xanax.”

For her part, Witler’s sister Dana had seen many friends with addiction issues, so she knew the signs when she saw them in her brother. “Addiction devastates families,” she says. “It usually starts small, with drugs like Percocet and Roxies [both opioids], but eventually they move on to cheaper and easily available drugs, even heroin, because they don’t have the money to keep up with it.”

Sadly, Witler’s addiction struggles are all too familiar for many families on Long Island and across the country. According to government reports, nationwide overdose deaths reached a record 93,000 in 2020. On Long Island, fatal drug overdoses rose 34 percent in Nassau and nearly 12 percent in Suffolk, and many experts believe the pandemic played a role in that increase.

The Witler family from left: Jordan, Dana, Bonnie and Jason
(Photo courtesy of the Witler family)

Our country has been facing a worsening and deadly overdose epidemic for the past several years, and fentanyl—the drug responsible for Witler’s accidental death—is a huge factor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl was involved in more than 60 percent of nationwide overdose deaths last year.
“Fentanyl is a powerful pain pill that’s being cut into heroin, cocaine and other drugs,” says Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, Director of the Leeds Place, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center’s Westbury facility that houses its outpatient chemical dependency program. “It’s up to 100 times stronger than morphine, which makes it extremely cheap—and extremely deadly.”

Mental Health And Addiction
Witler’s family sought help from a variety of addictions specialists during his teens. After a year-plus stretch in inpatient rehab, he returned to Syosset High School in his senior year, to the delight of his many friends. He was sober—but Bonnie Witler soon realized that her son’s issues were complicated.
“As we were getting ready to shop for Jason’s senior prom, he had a meltdown,” she explained. “I took him to the emergency room, and they said he’d had a manic episode.”
This was the first time anyone had suggested that Jason had a mental health condition. “I then knew that he’d been misdiagnosed most of his life,” says Witler.

Indeed, mental health challenges and addiction struggles often go hand in hand, says Taylor-Walthrust. “With the increased number of youth and adolescents seeking treatment for co-occurring disorders, the most effective outcome is to treat both disorders simultaneously,” she explained.

Witler eventually moved to Florida for treatment, and Sullo, Jason’s girlfriend from Syosset, moved down to live with him. He got a job in real estate, and his life seemed to be on the right track.
“Jason was doing so well,” Sullo said. “He was clean and sober for five years, and he was dedicated to helping others stay drug-free. He was such a kind soul.”

She shares just one example: “Jason saw a guy he knew from a 12-step meeting at a gas station, and the kid didn’t look well,” Sullo recalled. “Jason made a point to get his number. For weeks, he called him every day, and they went to meetings together. He really cared about other people.”

A Mother’s Grief Turns To Activism
No one is sure what happened that caused Witler’s relapse, according to his mother and friends. The pandemic isolation may have been a factor, they say, but that’s only a guess.
As for Bonnie Witler, who moved to Florida a few months prior to Jason’s death to be near her son, her devastating loss has been made more bearable by her new role as an activist in the battle against addiction and the fentanyl crisis.

“I call myself a MOM, for ‘Mom on a Mission,’” Witler said, who is an active participant in various committees focusing on substance abuse, mental health and the fentanyl crisis. Witler was honored to be included in Sober House Task Force meetings created in July 2016 by Palm Beach County State Attorney General Dave Aronberg. The task force’s work has led to new regulations of sober homes and treatment centers in Florida that have become the model for other states.

Witler, who recently appeared on WSVN news channel in Florida, is also working with the head counsel of the American Medical Association to lobby congress to pass legislation related to the fentanyl crisis.
“Although many drug users have heard about the dangers of fentanyl, their addiction is too strong,” Witler said, “They are playing Russian Roulette.”

She adds that, because of fentanyl, “drugs are now weapons of murder. Dealers are actually charged with homicide.”
Acknowledging the widespread impact of addiction, Witler’s sister Dana said, “This is not just a Witler family problem, it’s a community problem, and that’s why sharing his story is so important. People need to realize that there’s help out there. We need to end the stigma, so people don’t think they have to handle this all alone.”

A Community Comes Together
The Jason Daniel Witler Memorial Home Run Derby provided a wonderful opportunity for Jason’s friends and family to comfort each other and to honor the life of a young man who cared deeply for others. The community responded in a big way. That day, more than $8,000 was raised, but through the generosity of the incredible people who made contributions in Jason’s memory before and after the event, the total reached more than $35,000, which will support the Guidance Center’s important work.

Ken Witler, Jason’s father, was awed by the large turnout. “It was all because of the hard work of Ashley, Jordan and Max, along with Josh Lafazan and his staff.” He added, “We’re glad that the proceeds will go to the Guidance Center, knowing they will be used to help kids and families struggling with addiction issues.”

Bonnie Witler says that she was “elated” for most of the day at the memorial, as so many young people and parents approached her about how much they felt her son was a part of their family and that “they loved having him around, with his great smile and big laugh.”
By the end of the day, however, the grief overcame her as she explained, “It comes in waves, and you have to feel your feelings.” But she feels best when doing all she can to prevent other families from undergoing the tremendous loss that she and her family now live with every day.

“The pain of losing a child is so enormous that some days I just don’t think I can make it,” she said. “But if I can help another life, it gives me reason to go on. Maybe Jason’s life will save hundreds of others.”

—Jenna Kern-Rugile is the Director of Communications at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center