By CASEY McDERMOTT
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
(Published in print: Wednesday, September 24, 2014)
The front lines of mental health are not confined to psychiatrists’ offices or community mental health centers. That much was made clear at a panel discussion convened by Riverbend Community Health Center at Concord High School last night.
Sometimes, mental health first responders are actually police officers, firefighters or EMS personnel – like the ones New Hampshire Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes oversees. More people are turning to 911 as a resource when they’re confronting a mental health crisis, Barthelmes said, because they know someone’s going to be on the other end of the line, and they know someone will follow up on their call.
Other times, the first responders are people like Rundlett Middle School Assistant Principal Heather Barker, who knows all too well how students’ challenges at home can manifest as issues at school. Absences, tardiness and disruptive behaviors can hint at deeper problems, Barker said, and educators can’t just dismiss these through discipline without trying to identify and address the cause.
Moving forward, Mary Brunette said she hopes that mental health responses will also be a more routine part of medical care. Brunette, medical director of the New Hampshire Bureau of Behavioral Health, also said the state is working to implement new “mobile crisis teams” that would provide treatment and support in communities across New Hampshire.
These varied responses are increasingly necessary for several reasons, the panelists explained last night: because you don’t have to be a therapist to recognize when someone might need help, or because of the barriers people in New Hampshire encounter accessing mental health treatment.
Concord Hospital Emergency Room physician Mike Lynch, also a panelist, said it’s apparent – by the people left waiting days at the hospital before they can get to treatment elsewhere – that the funding on which the mental health system is dependent is “in a state of crisis.”
“It’s hurting the system, it’s hurting medical care. . . . There is no other way around it, we are underfunded,” Lynch said. “People are being held and treated where they aren’t treated best. It’s straining the system, it’s straining staff and it’s straining resources.”
While the panel underscored the challenges facing the state’s mental health system and those who rely on it, panelists also offered hope that these issues could be addressed – primarily, many said, by continuing to destigmatize mental illness, by teaching people how to cope with stress and by providing more treatment options across the state.
Only about 40 people attended last night’s discussion, and Riverbend President and CEO Peter Evers said he wished there had been a larger turnout. But Evers, who organized the first-of-its-kind panel, said he chalks that up as a lesson to be addressed the next time Riverbend organizes such an event – ideally, he said, once every six months or so.
At the end of the event, Evers shared a story about meeting a real estate agent when he moved to Concord, who shared that his brother had experienced depression his whole life. Evers asked if the man’s brother had ever sought treatment, and the man said no.
“We wouldn’t have that kind of conversation with someone who had diabetes,” Evers said.
Through events like last night’s and future outreach, Evers said he hopes to change that.
(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or email@example.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)