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Sununu, Mental Health Advocates Celebrate Bill Signing

Casey McDermott, NHPR
Lawmakers and local mental health advocates gathered with Gov. Chris Sununu to celebrate the bill signing Wednesday.

Karen Fischer, of Manchester, was at a loss last year trying to find help for her teenage daughter after a suicide attempt. The local hospital didn’t have a pediatric mental health unit, and insurance wouldn’t approve a stay in the regular pediatric unit. As a result, her daughter was stuck in an emergency room hallway for three days, awaiting treatment.

Fischer brought her family’s story to the attention of lawmakers, and that — along with others who spoke up about their own barriers to treatment — helped to serve as the catalyst for a bill signed by Gov. Chris Sununu on Wednesday.

“It’s wonderful to know that maybe another family won’t have to experience what we did,” Fischer said, after a ceremonial bill signing at the offices of National Alliance on Mental Illness in New Hampshire. “It’s a very unexpected thing that occurs when your child goes through something like this, you’re never prepared for it.”

The bill calls for changes both to the mental health system and child protection standards.

Among other things, it forces the Department of Health and Human Services to come up with a new 10-year plan for reforming the mental health system, focusing on wait times and gaps in the current system. It also requires DHHS to come up with plans for protecting the rights of patients who are involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment, and for transitioning kids away from treatment at New Hampshire Hospital.

The bill also creates a new mid-level category for child protection cases reported to the Division of Children, Youth and Families — “unfounded but with reasonable concern" — and spells out criteria for responding to those cases.

Ken Norton, the director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New Hampshire, praised both those like Fischer who spoke out about the need for reform and policymakers for their willingness to confront the issues within the state’s mental health system.

Norton specifically praised Gov. Chris Sununu, noting that the governor and other legislative leaders took the time to visit a local emergency room and speak with those directly affected by the lack of treatment capacity.

“He called it what it has been for quite some time, a crisis,” Norton said. “By naming it, he also signaled his intent to do something about it.”

Sununu, for his part, said he didn’t grasp until recently the extent to which patients stuck in emergency rooms are not getting the help they need while waiting for mental health treatment beds to open up.

“I don’t know if the public understands that, I know I didn’t completely understand it. When someone is waiting in an emergency room, there’s an assumption that they’re getting treatment,” Sununu said. “It’s not because the hospitals don’t want to help or can’t help. The statutory prevention there just allows them to kind of be maintained. And I think it’s a strong word, but it’s not necessarily an incorrect word, it’s almost inhumane.”

Both Norton and Sununu praised the bill as one step toward fixing those problems — but stressed more work is needed. Sununu said the success of the bill relies on funding from the state budget to see through the treatment expansions it calls for.

Today, Fischer says her daughter is back in good health. But others are still struggling: Last month, on average, officials say 27 adults and 17 kids were waiting for mental health treatment in ERs across the state. 

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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