By Cailin Riley
October 18, 2022
When Emily Lupercio was going through what she called her own “mental health journey” during her junior year of college, she realized just how hard it can be to access the kind of support and services necessary to create and foster emotional well-being, and the many obstacles and barriers that exist to true self-care.
It’s why, when she began interning for the nonprofit Latino advocacy group Organizacion Latino Americana (OLA), she was determined to do something about it. Lupercio is an East Hampton High School graduate, now in her senior year at SUNY Geneseo, and she has been instrumental in OLA’s creation of Youth Connect, a new bilingual prevention-focused crisis counseling program.
Youth Connect provides middle and high school-aged youth on the East End with access to immediate support and guidance in Spanish or English through an anonymous, confidential helpline that local youth can text or call to speak with a trained crisis counselor.
Youth Connect, OLA emphasizes, is a program for all East End youth, Latino and non-Latino alike. Trained crisis counselors are on hand from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
While the helpline is the main feature of this new program, Youth Connect takes a multi-faceted approach, using several preventative methods and other proactive measures to address the mental health crisis for young people that has been a big story nationally, since before the pandemic even began.
Anxiety, depression, and hopelessness are some of the big issues youth say they are dealing with, and providing support for them as they navigate or deal with anything challenging, from eating disorders to self-harming behaviors and suicidal thoughts, to substance abuse, sexual activity, social stresses, and gender identification will be part of what Youth Connect does.
Youth Connect’s goal is to strengthen all of the key support networks and institutions that young people rely on to thrive, from their parents and guardians to schools, houses of worship, peers and trained mental health professionals.
There are many things that OLA wants the Youth Connect program to accomplish, but a main goal is to support the people and systems that already exist to provide mental health care to students, make them more effective, and make young people more willing to use them.
That includes working to ensure that students of all ages across the area understand and feel comfortable accessing emotional health care support that their school districts already have in place; offering workshops and presentations, in both Spanish and English, for faith leaders and congregations to deepen their understanding of adolescent mental and emotional health needs; and offering workshops to parents and caregivers featuring local experts and youth leaders who share how best to support adolescents when they are struggling with anxiety, depression, self-harm and other issues.
Helping to provide access to private mental health care providers, including helping youth and their families navigate challenges such as insurance compliance, language barriers or any other difficult or confusing elements of the process is part of Youth Connect’s overall goal as well.
OLA was inspired to create Youth Connect in part because of its involvement with Project Hope, a New York State-based program that provided counseling and support services for families and individuals during the height of the COVID crisis.
OLA’s core values of promoting and fostering diversity, equity and inclusion will of course be at the heart of Youth Connect, but there is also strong emphasis put on the idea that the real experts in determining what needs to be done to support young people dealing with mental health challenges are the young people themselves.
To that end, OLA hosted a Youth Summit over the summer, inviting youth ages 13 to 22 to come together and speak about their experiences, what they felt they needed to have better access to mental health care, and what barriers existed for them.
Listening to them was one part of the equation, Lupercio said. Taking action has been the next step.
“We didn’t want youth to come and talk and have nothing come out of it,” Lupercio said. “We wanted this to be something where their voice was going to matter.”
OLA has been doing important and multi-faceted Latino-focused advocacy work on the East End for 20 years, since its founding in 2002, but started putting even more emphasis on supporting the mental health of families in 2015, and it did that in a simple but powerful way, according to executive director Minerva Perez — by listening.
She spoke about bringing families together during that time, gathering different generations to talk about their mental health and how they were coping, and what they heard was, at times, alarming.
“Even kids as young as 6 were in terrible anxietal states,” Perez said. “Worried that their parents were going to be taken away. We started paying attention ever since that. So it was way before COVID that we were concerned about the mental health of our families.”
In early 2020, with the help of Stony Brook University, OLA commissioned a mental health survey for youth in the area, asking them about their experiences as middle and high school students, the challenges they faced, and what would help them. Young people made it clear they were seeking better and more accessible mental health care support. They shared what stood in their way when it came to accessing it, and Perez said OLA used that feedback to develop Youth Connect.
“What’s so special about it is that it’s 100 percent youth-centered,” Perez said. “We’re not sitting back and saying what the youth need.”
Perez said that the biggest concerns for youth have been around issues of privacy and confidentiality, and they’ve expressed fear of stigma or getting their parents in trouble as reasons they have been hesitant to access mental health care services. The hotline provides that privacy that youth are seeking, but Perez said there are still built-in safeguards, based on protocols it developed for Project Hope, immediate steps that can be taken if any individuals express a desire to harm themselves.
Perez also stressed that the goal of Youth Connect is not to replace or undermine any of the mental health support systems already in place in school districts, but rather to help be a bridge, when necessary, for students to those services, or an alternative for students who don’t feel comfortable accessing help through their school.
“We’re not there to be a wrench or suck away the work they’re doing,” Perez said. “Our goal will be to reconnect them to the help, if it’s there. If that help isn’t there, or the student doesn’t want to use it for whatever reason, we won’t force them — we’ll help them in any other way we can.”
While Youth Connect is available for all tweens and teens in the area, Perez said there is a specific focus on the Latino community because there is a specific need there. Perez pointed out that prevention programs for youth that include a Spanish-language component are “virtually nonexistent” on the East End, and Youth Connect wants to fill that void.
Both Perez and Lupercio are proud of what OLA has created, and excited about the possibility of making it even better. Youth Connect is already being employed and promoted in both the Bridgehampton and East Hampton school districts, and OLA is working on promoting it in other districts in the area as well. The goal is to reach as many students as possible, make them feel seen and heard, and erase some of the stigma that is still too often associated with seeking mental and emotional care, which can be particularly acute for youth in Spanish speaking or bilingual homes.
“As someone of Latina descent, I know sometimes in the Latino community, mental health tends to be pushed to the side,” Lupercio said. “We want to emphasize that everyone goes through things, and it’s super important for them to be addressed, and not be pushed to the side and create cycles of the same thing happening over and over again.”