Shortly before Thanksgiving, Roger Carroll reached a crisis point. His depression was weighing on him so heavily that he worried he might take his own life. So he sought help and found it. When his stint as a patient ended, Carroll—who is also the managing editor of the Laconia Daily Sun—wrote about his experience for the newspaper in a series of first-person reports called "Journey Through N.H.'s Mental Health System." NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with Carroll about this journey at the offices of the Laconia Daily Sun.
Tell me about when you realized you needed professional help to get your mental state back to where you needed it to be. What happened that precipitated this?
I knew I was in a bad place. A couple months earlier, I called the suicide prevention hotline. But the tipping point was when my granddaughters came over. We always make meatloaf. That's their favorite thing to do with grandpa. And they're part of the process. They crack the eggs and add the bread crumbs and all that good stuff. So we made it and it came out horribly. And it was very much a reflection of my state of mind.
The next day, I was pretty despondent. I realized that when the girls were there, I was there physically only. I wasn't there mentally, which was very unusual. The next day, I went looking for a gun shop and found one. Didn't go in. Just drove by a couple of times. The day after that, I went back and I went into the parking lot, thought about going in, and didn't. Fortunately, I had a regularly scheduled therapy session. So I went to that instead. [I] told my therapist where I'd been, what I'd been thinking. She said, "You need more help than I can give you. How about we go to the emergency room?"
Tell us about the experience in the emergency room. What was that like from your perspective?
It was both heart-wrenching and encouraging. I had people come up, one nurse in particular. The nurses on staff were just wonderful. They were supportive. I had one nurse come up and sat next to me.
I was in a room with just one chair, by design. She took my hand and she said, "I've been where you are and we're going to help you through this." And they gave me a cordless phone to call my wife and she wasn't surprised. She knew what my state of mind had been for the last several days and even before that.
So I waited. I was there from about 9:30 to just about one o'clock. They took me to an extension of the emergency department called "the Annex," a six-bed facility where people go to wait for an in-patient bed to open up. I spent about 27 hours there.
What was it like when you finally got a bed at a place that could give you all the services you needed?
So I went to the designated receiving facility in Franklin at Franklin Regional Hospital. I was pretty nervous about that. And I arrived during dinner so I passed by the dayroom and the other patients were sitting around the table eating. I kept to myself. But the next morning I went to breakfast and there was a young man in his early 20s who seemed to think I was there for drugs, and I said, "No, I don't do drugs." He said, "But you realized you weren't right in the head, so you reached out for help." I said, "Yeah." And he stuck out his hand and said, "Right on." I shook his hand and, as I say in the column, I felt like I got a little bit of my humanity back, like some kind of a transfusion.
When I was there I felt supported. The nurses were super-attentive. But a big part of the therapy and the process of getting better was connecting with the other patients. One of the things I was struck by was the fact that the other patients were just like anybody you would meet on the street, in your workplace, at the gym, in your daily life. They were just regular people and I came to like them and respect them immensely.
What change, if any, do you hope your series of columns will precipitate in the state?
Open discussion. People use the word "stigma," but I think "prejudice" is probably the better word. I think there are prejudices surrounding the mental health system but across the country. But ask yourself this: Who would you rather live or work next to? Somebody who knows they have a problem and is getting treatment, or someone who doesn't?
Right before you left the system, you were going to get a visit from your grandchildren. But because they were under 18, there was some objection from the folks who ran the facility. And you pushed back against that because you thought it was important for, first of all, for your granddaughters to know that grandpa is okay, and second of all, for the kids to learn at an early age that mental illness is a thing, it's okay to get help, look, this is normal. Why was that important to you that your grandchildren had that exposure at such an early age?
I didn't want them to think that if you have mental health issues, you go to a bad, scary place. I sort of felt like the very system that wants to end the stigma surrounding mental health was treating it like it was something to be hidden from the children.
Do you feel like the stigma surrounding mental illness decreases generation by generation the way it does for certain other things in society?
I think, yeah. You know, John Broderick, who I talked to before I wrote the piece.
That's the former NH Surpreme Court Justice who is advocating for knowing the signs of mental illness.
Yup. He's right. I remember talking to him back in 2015 or 2016 when he said, "You know, a few generations ago, you wouldn't say the word 'cancer' out loud. You wouldn't say 'breast cancer.' Nobody would even utter the words. And then, eventually, people started talking about it." Now we have breast cancer awareness month. We've made progress. That's how you move the ball down the field, by starting a conversation.