'We are all impacted by this.' A conversation about mental illness, gun violence following NH Hospital shooting
Many across the state are processing last Friday’s shooting in Concord when a gunman fatally shot 63-year-old Bradley Haas, a security guard at New Hampshire Hospital. A state trooper at the facility shot and killed the suspect.
The incident took place in the lobby of the state psychiatric hospital. The mental health advocacy group NAMI-New Hampshire brought in a team of peer support specialists over the weekend to work with staff and patients following the shooting.
“Chief Haas, the security officer, was part of their team,” Susan Stearns, the executive director of NAMI-New Hampshire, said. “So along with this shocking shooting, which is so traumatic, is just the plain grief of when you lose someone who is a friend and colleague and that has a huge impact.”
Details are still emerging about the suspect and his relationship with New Hampshire Hospital, but it seems he’d previously spent time there, according to court records.
Stearns says conversations following shootings inevitably focus on mental health, even when the suspect has no documented history of mental illness.
“The vast majority of people with mental illness, even severe and persistent mental illness, are not violent, and statistics would tell us they are more likely to be victims of violence,” she said.
Stearns says these are important conversations to have, but people should keep in mind the stigma and discrimination those with mental illness experience.
“Do not assume that the person you are speaking to is not someone living with a mental illness, because the reality is we are all impacted by this,” Stearns said.
NHPR’s Rick Ganley spoke with Stearns about the impact of this event, mental health and gun violence. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
The shooting took place in the lobby of the state psychiatric facility. For those who might not be familiar, can you remind us of the mission of that hospital and the needs of the patients it serves?
So, New Hampshire Hospital is the premier hospital for serving people experiencing acute psychiatric crises. And almost all of these folks who are there, they're typically under an involuntary emergency admission process. So they are considered to be a danger to themselves or others because of the level of acuity of their mental health crisis. These are some of our most vulnerable adults during some of their most vulnerable times in their lives.
I'm wondering about the impact that this sort of event has on those patients. What should we keep in mind about that?
That's a great question. I will say the team at New Hampshire Hospital has been very concerned about that and reached out to us actually Friday night to ask if we could help bring in a team of peer support specialists over the weekend. And we did indeed have a six member team of peers who were there both Saturday and Sunday to work with the patients and offer them support. I want to give credit here to not only our team of peer support specialists who made up part of that group, but also the community mental health centers and peer support agencies. It truly was a collective endeavor.
Obviously, these patients were there in a locked facility during this crisis. You have to realize, particularly for the staff and for many of us who are familiar with New Hampshire Hospital, Chief Haas, the security officer, was part of their team. And so someone they saw every day when they came in in the morning and when they left at the end of the day. So along with this shocking shooting, which is so traumatic, is just the plain grief of when you lose someone who is a friend and colleague and that has a huge impact. But under these circumstances, it's just so much greater.
Now, details are still emerging about the suspect and his relationship with New Hampshire Hospital, but it seems he'd previously spent some time there, according to court records. While there's still a lot we don't know, you've said it's important not to conflate mental illness with acts of violence like this. Are you concerned about the potential for this incident to add, you know, further stigma to mental illness?
After incidents like this, we always are. That quickly becomes a go to in the conversations. Obviously around such incidents, often even when there is no history or documented history of mental illness, that frequently comes up immediate in the aftermath.
The reality is one in five Americans, and this holds true here in the Granite State, experiences a mental health disorder in any given year. The vast majority of people with mental illness, even severe and persistent mental illness, are not violent. And statistics would tell us they are more likely to be victims of violence.
But I don't want us to just say, "So we don't address the mental health component. I think it's important to understand that while most people with mental illness will never become violent, the reality is there are some factors that can heighten the risk [like] excessive use or misuse of alcohol or illegal substances. Frankly, being young and male statistically increases the risks. Personal history of having survived physical or sexual abuse or trauma, those can all be additional risk factors.
But I have to caution, no single mental illness nor mental illness alone is a single predictor of that violence. That said, if you're concerned about a loved one, you absolutely should reach out and get help and see what is available.
I want to ask you about conversations that we need to have here in New Hampshire, about people who may be a harm to themselves or others having access to firearms. Is there something to be done on a public health scale?
The reality is we need to make sure we have access to every tool we need to help prevent access to lethal means, especially such lethal means as firearms, by people who may be a danger to themselves or others. I would be remiss also not to mention the fact that in New Hampshire, far more firearm deaths are suicides than homicides. And when you have sat with a family who has been broken by such a loss, it just is an incredibly important reminder of how we need to provide every tool we can.
NAMI New Hampshire is on the record twice now, having supported legislation here in New Hampshire that would have sought to create an extreme risk protective order law. Those are tools that could be invaluable in some instances.
I do want to say and remind people that people with mental illness do recover, and that treatment works for the vast majority of folks, even someone who may have needed an involuntary emergency admission at one point in their lives can reach a point of recovery where, yes, if they want to go hunting with their uncle, that should happen. It isn't something that we'd want to say, "You lose your rights forever." Because the reality is mental illness is very treatable.
The vast majority of people with mental illness get up in the morning, put their kids on the bus, go to work, come home, make dinner, help the kids with the homework, do the laundry, go to bed, get up and do it all over again the next day. So I would also caution in our conversations that we remember how much stigma and discrimination there is, and that these are conversations we need to have. But do not assume that the person you are speaking to is not someone living with a mental illness, because the reality is we are all impacted by this.
Editor's note: People can call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, as well as 833-710-6477 for New Hampshire’s Rapid Response Access Point, for help in a mental health or substance use crisis.