By Jean-Paul Salamanca
An East Hampton-based Latino advocacy group will use a grant funded by Suffolk's opioids lawsuit settlement with major drug companies to expand its new mental health support program for teens in an effort to help prevent substance abuse among East End youths.
OLA of Eastern Long Island will put the $200,000 a year, three-year county grant into Youth Connect, its bilingual mental and emotional support program for local middle and high school students.
Launched in September, the program has provided mental health and crisis counseling for teenagers by connecting them to trained crisis counselors via an anonymous 24/7 text and call helpline.
The nonprofit is one of 34 organizations in Suffolk to receive a grant in the first round of funding from the $25 million the county has received so far in settlement money after Suffolk sued pharmaceutical companies and retail pharmacies in connection with the local opioids epidemic.
In 2016, Suffolk was the first county in New York to file such a lawsuit, which Nassau County and the New York Attorney General's Office joined. The complaint said drug manufacturers and distributors downplayed the risks of addiction and aggressively promoted opioid use. Many defendants agreed to settle before a 2021 trial in Central Islip, while others reached deals during the proceeding.
Minerva Perez, OLA's executive director, told Newsday the nonprofit's program will use funding from that settlement to work to bridge the gap between mental health and substance abuse for teens.
She said mental health struggles among adolescents shouldn't be minimized and "there's such a fine line between mental health struggles, substance use and substance abuse."
Perez added: “It’s really heartbreaking and eye-opening when you start listening to middle schoolers about what is affecting them at this moment in their lives."
Jessica Tovar and Faith Evans, two crisis counselors who work on the helpline, said teens call and text about issues ranging from communication problems with parents to anxiety, family matters and sadness.
“They want someone to just listen, and that’s what we’re here for,” Evans added.
The counselor said the nonprofit now hopes to give more youths access to resources — particularly bilingual access — that can assist them if they're struggling with opioids.
“We’ll be able to learn ourselves and connect them with help out here in the community,” Evans said. “We’re going to help create those connections.”
So far, OLA has partnered with the Bridgehampton and East Hampton school districts on the initiative and is aiming to work with more East End school districts.
Bridgehampton School District Principal Michael Miller said the program is something that, socially and emotionally, “is going to put our students in a much better position."
Adam Fine, superintendent of the East Hampton Union Free School District, said the district, which is 55% Latino, often deals with issues related to student substance abuse, making programs such as OLA’s key in addressing those problems.
He said he's working with Perez and believes the nonprofit's programming can provide an additional educational component for students.
Young people who are looking for assistance can call Youth Connect at 631-810-9010 for help in Spanish or English.
Details on Youth Connect
Provides mental health and crisis counseling for teenagers via an anonymous 24/7 text and call helpline at 631-810-9010.
Also seeks to give young people access to resources, particularly bilingual access, that can help if they're struggling with opioids.
The program will be expanded with funds Suffolk won in a lawsuit settlement.
The East Hampton and Bridgehampton school districts are partnering with OLA of Eastern Long Island on the program.