Student Cuts a Path to Helping Others With Mental Health

Today’s adolescents are experiencing a mental health crisis declared a “national emergency” by the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

According to CDC data from 2021, 42 percent of high school students experienced “persistent feelings of sadness” in the past year. The issue is particularly pronounced among girls: from 2011 to 2021, the percentage of girls experiencing persistent hopelessness has increased from 36 percent to 57 percent. 

As national and state lawmakers attempt to meet this challenge, one Dix Hills high schooler has taken matters into her own hands. Blake Rabinowitz, a 15-year-old sophomore at Half Hollow Hills East High School, is promoting vulnerability, connection, and journaling to help young people like her navigate stress and mental illness. 

Earlier this year, Blake found herself more anxious and unsure of herself, consumed by stress.

Blake is an active teenager with a big life. She swims competitively, takes honors and AP classes, competes on the speech and debate team, and the mock trial team, and runs an art community service program. But despite the fact that she loves her activities and classes, she began feeling anxious and overwhelmed last fall. 

Her mother, Brooke Rabinowitz, recalled, “I was worried about her. I was starting to see behavior, how she was reacting to things. Here’s this great, amazing kid, who’s smart and talented, and athletic and all of that, but it didn’t matter—there was still this anxiety that she was feeling, and it broke my heart.” 

When Blake and her mother went to her pediatrician asking for guidance, the doctor recommended that she either drop one of her beloved activities or start going to therapy. But her activities and clubs were meaningful and important to her, and she had no time to add a new responsibility like weekly therapy appointments. Her doctor recommended that Blake start journaling about her feelings, and when she did, she found that it brought her immense relief. 

“Suddenly, I felt it all flow out,” Blake said of her feelings on the page. “Though there were still stressful times, the overwhelming feeling of stress was no longer there.”

At that time, she thought back to a poetry assignment she’d done the year before, where she wrote a sonnet about a young girl who felt inferior to her friends. When she read it aloud to the class, it resonated with many of her classmates. 

“A lot of people came up to me after, and they said, ‘I really feel that too.’ I felt validated in my feelings and I was happy that they felt better that I shared something they also experienced,” Blake said. 

So when she found that journaling was an effective tool to fight her own stress, she realized that her peers might also benefit from writing and journaling, the way they seemed to benefit from her poetry. An opportunity to share this message presented itself in the form of the Half Hollow Hills PTA’s second annual Mental Health Awareness Day. 

“We, the PTA, wanted to do our part in the mental health crisis,” said Tina Shek, president of the PTA council and a Youth Mental Health Counselor. “So we had our first annual Mental Health Awareness Day last year and we had an amazing turnout. When we heard from Blake’s guidance counselor that there was a young person who would like to share their lived experiences, and how they handled mental health challenges, we said that would be great. We wanted to have people with lived experience share their stories.”

Before the event in January, Blake assembled kits consisting of a pen, a journal, and a booklet of her own poetry, which focuses on themes of belonging, connection, and self-esteem, to distribute at the event, and led a presentation on the benefits of journaling.

“I had no idea who was going to show up,” she said. “It was mostly adults in the room, but there were some kids there. They came up to me after and they said ‘That was so helpful to us.’ I almost cried. I didn’t think I could reach kids younger than me and that they would actually respond like that.”

One member of Blake’s audience was Suffolk County Legislator Rebecca Sanin. 

“I was so impressed, by the care and attention of the community on mental health and well-being to students,” Sanin said, commending the school district’s promotion of mental wellness.  “Blake was vulnerable and honest, and willing to talk about her own challenges and struggles, and then channel them into making sure that she was supporting her peers and normalizing the challenges that many of our teenagers are facing today.”

Following the presentation, Sanin met with Blake at her office to discuss how the legislature can best support youth mental health.

“We’re facing a mental health crisis in Suffolk County,” Sanin said. “It’s really important to recognize young people who identify a challenge and try to meet the need, and be a solution builder,” Sanin said, referencing the importance of Blake’s work. “Our children in a post-COVID world are struggling, and are very much impacted by the trauma and isolation of that time period as well as the challenges that face teenagers in a digital world.”

Additionally, Sanin said that the increased need for mental health services has caused a “real shortage” in areas like psychiatry, which can cause long wait times before people can get help for themselves or their children. “So there’s this perfect storm of tremendous challenges that are impacting families,” Sanin said.

According to the American Psychological Association, in 2022, 60 percent of psychologists reported having “no openings for new patients”. They also reported being contacted for services by an average of 15 people per month, excluding existing patients. Long waitlists or difficulty in scheduling prompt intake appointments can exacerbate existing mental health difficulties. 

Blake wants people to know that therapy is not the only way to improve one’s mental health—healing can start by connecting with others over shared difficulties. “The more you tell others, and the more you express your feelings, the more others are going to feel validated about what they’re feeling. Coming into this, I thought the only thing you could do [if you’re struggling] is talk to a therapist.”

Brooke Rabinowitz agreed, saying that Blake’s project is accessible to everyone, even to kids who don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents about mental health or seeking out therapy. 

“Even if you can’t talk to your parents or go to therapy, take a notebook out, do something for yourself, to help you get a little better,” Brooke recommends to teenagers.

Since the Mental Health Awareness Day presentation, Blake has also brought her journaling kits to a troop of seventh-grade Girl Scouts and a group of eleventh-grade and eighth-grade boys. 

“When the quieter students heard the louder students talk about something they were struggling with, they also started to speak up, and it flowed into a conversation where they all learned from each other,” Blake said of her presentation to the Girl Scout troop. 

She felt that both presentations facilitated important discussions among the students, and she hopes to lead more presentations for teenagers on the benefits of journaling. 

For parents whose children are struggling with their mental health, Blake’s mother advises, “Don’t stop trying to help them. Respect the fact that they’re going through something. As a parent, it can be daunting [when your child is having mental health challenges], but there are options out there…I brought her to the pediatrician, I didn’t even know if that was the person you should go to, but it was better than nothing. Parents probably don’t even know to go to the pediatrician. We came home, and felt like there were all of these ideas that she gave us.“

For Sanin, the youth mental health crisis is an issue that will require broader systemic solutions.

“Government is not the solution alone. We have to work hand in hand with our nonprofit partners, with our education partners, and really make sure we’re doing everything we can do draw down resources to Suffolk County to meet the needs of our constituents.”

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