MANCHESTER, N.H. — People who use the state’s mental health and treatment system connected Wednesday night with policy and lawmakers, along with journalists, to discuss what needs to be done to assist those with substance abuse and mental health issues.
Titled “Solutions from the Frontlines: A Community Behavioral Health Conversation,” the event drew more than 60 people to the Franklin Pierce University campus in the Manchester Millyard.
The event was sponsored by the Granite State News Collaborative (GSNC). Project manager Melanie Plenda, who hosted the event, said the hope was that the discussion would allow people who don’t usually get to have a say, are heard by those with power to effect a change in their lives.
Plenda said the goal was to have a community conversation with people who don’t usually have a say and for them to be heard by people with the power to make effective changes.
The event was divided into three sections with five people telling their stories.
Roger Carroll, the managing editor of the Laconia Daily Sun, wrote about his experience in the mental health system.
A week before Thanksgiving, he said he found himself sitting in a car in a parking lot outside a gun shop with a plan to go buy a gun and kill himself. He happened to have a therapy session that morning and he kept the appointment. He told his therapist what he was thinking, he went to the emergency room and entered the mental health system.
He spent a week in a designated receiving facility in Franklin. “I was very fortunate I had a million reasons to live,” he said including adorable grandchildren, an awesome daughter and incredibly supportive wife.
As a writer, he said he knew he was going to write about it.
The day the page was laid out on the computer, the publisher asked him if he had any second thoughts. “Oh, yea,” he said.
The result was a three-part series that launched the Granite State News Collaborative. It included writing about himself “warts and all. I was kind of a difficult patient,” he said.
The series was picked up by the media and, he said, it received more than 200 comments. “Not a single negative word in the bunch,” Carroll said. The response, he said, was more than he hoped for.
“People wanted to talk about it,” he said. And from their responses, he said he doesn’t believe the stigma surrounding mental health issues is what “it is cracked up to be.”
Ryan Fowler, a certified recovery support worker for The Doorway at Granite Pathways in Manchester and Nashua, spoke about being addicted to fentanyl and dealing drugs for 10 years. He said five years ago to the day, he was a homeless injection drug user sleeping in a tent with his dog in his friend’s back yard in Hampton. Wednesday marked his fifth year anniversary of being sober.
He had been in residential treatment programs twice, underwent out-patient counseling and was on a suboxone program but was about to get kicked out for using drugs. His days consisted of driving his uncle’s unregistered truck on back roads to get to his job at a fireworks store in Seabrook and selling drugs to support his habit.
Fowler said his long-time friends wrote him off as dead and he had stolen from a lot of them so his social circle was growing smaller and smaller. Even his faithful dog was getting tired of his antics and he didn’t like the drives to Lawrence, Mass. to buy heroin.
In the spring of 2014, he said he experienced the worst psychosis of his life several times, each one worse than the other, precipitated by drugs and his underlying mental health issues. He did get kicked off the suboxone program and he went back to a daily habit of heroin. What he found out later, through a toxicology test, was the drug he was buying was pure fentanyl.
He overdosed three times that year, returned to residential treatment two more times and spent Christmas and New Year’s in rehab. After rehab, he spent nine months in mental health counseling, made possible by the expansion of Medicaid. He’s been sober ever since.
Besides working for Granite Pathways, he is a journalist who has been published in Newsweek and the Concord Monitor. Today, he drives the car he always wanted, lives in a beautiful home with his girlfriend and “honestly I have never been happier.”
He said he is alive and healthy because of “harm reduction.” Medication-assisted treatment, he said, saved his life; naloxone saved his life; alternative sentencing saved his life; his friends illegally supplied him with sterile syringes and educated him about his behaviors saved his life.
Fowler said years of research prove that “harm reduction” - syringe service programs, availability to naloxone, medication-assisted recovery - saves lives.
Others speaking were Angela Thomas Jones, co-founder of North Country Task Force on Improving Opioid Treatment Outcomes in Littleton; Paula Holigan, SAMHSA Program Manager for NH Fire/EMS Standards and Training in Concord, and Mia Flegal, 7th grader, Pennichuck Middle School in Nashua who spoke about how she deals with anxiety.
The second part of the session involved table discussions about behavioral issues, what is working in their communities, what they want politicians and other leaders in the state to know about and how the news media can do better in serving the community on mental health issues.
The third part of the evening featured a panel discussion concerning “What’s next? A state-level view.” Hosted by Matt Mowry, editor, Business NH Magazine, panelists included Peter Evers, Chief Executive Officer, Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord; Tym Rourke, Director of New Hampshire Tomorrow at New Hampshire Charitable Foundation; Sen. Tom Sherman, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, and Sheelu Joshi Flegal, a social worker at Souhegan High School in Amherst.
The panelists, in general, were impressed by the optimism in the room that the state can win the opiate battle.
GSNC is a statewide multimedia group whose partners include the Berlin Daily Sun, Business NH Magazine, the Eagle-Tribune, Keene Sentinel, Laconia Daily Sun, Manchester Ink Link, the Matlin Fitzwater Center at Franklin Pierce University, the Telegraph of Nashua, NH Bar News, NH Business Review, NH PBS, Seacoast Media Group and the Student Journalism Coalition, The Pierce Arrow, Purple States and Souhegan High School.
It is sponsored by The Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization that trains and encourages journalists to cover what’s missing in today’s news: how people are responding to problems.