‘Small steps’ in mental health advocacy, suicide prevention add up to remarkable career

Ken Norton retires from NAMI NH; Susan Stearns takes over as executive director

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NAMI NH provides support, education, and advocacy for people affected by mental illness and suicide. Photo/Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

Story Produced by New Hampshire Bulletin

MANCHESTER, NH – Yes, Ken Norton brought professional credentials and years of clinical experience to his executive director work at NAMI NH. But the wins during his 11 years in that role also demanded persistent optimism and patience.

Suicide prevention programs didn’t exist when he took the position. New Hampshire went on to have one of the first programs in the country.

The insights of people touched by mental health crises and suicide were not considered valuable. Now people with “lived experience” are on the mobile response teams sent to crisis calls.

The police had no training for the mental health emergencies they had to handle. Today, many New Hampshire departments have sent their officers to NAMI NH’s 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training program.

Ken Norton retired as executive director at NAMI NH in January, after nearly 20 years with the nonprofit.

That took years due to roadblocks like budget constraints and legislative resistance.

“Clearly a lesson learned is that change is incremental,” Norton said. “We may have big, audacious goals … but sometimes it’s just a small thing that is progress. And as I look at things over the span of my career, there have been giant steps, but there were very small steps to get there.”

Norton retired this month after 19 years with the organization, a grassroots nonprofit that provides support, education, and advocacy for people affected by mental illness and suicide.

The advocacy Norton somehow managed on his own – testifying at the Legislature, serving on task forces and commissions, joining legal challenges to the state’s mental health system, and running the organization, is now the work of two people.

Susan Stearns, who’s been with NAMI NH for nine years, the last five as deputy director, is the new executive director, and attorney Holly Stevens has been hired to direct NAMI NH’s legislative and policy work.

For Stearns, NAMI NH was a support long before it became her employer. She has lost family members to suicide, and her son began expressing suicidal thoughts at age 8. (He’s now 30 and doing well.) “This is work that chooses you, as I think Ken often says,” Stearns said. Asked why she sought the job, Stearns said, “This is where my passion is.”

Norton joined the mental health field at 22, working in a group home with at-risk teenagers. A co-worker shared with him her struggles with her husband’s alcohol abuse. The woman gave her husband an ultimatum: stop drinking or she was leaving. He took his life that night.

“It was my first up-close and personal experience with suicide,” Norton said. “She said she knew he was ill, but she didn’t realize how ill he was.”

A 17-year career at Lakes Region Mental Health followed, helping people transition back to the community after being institutionalized for years, even decades, in state mental health facilities. He moved on to a part-time position with Family Strength, leaving direct care for development work.

Norton continued to see the trauma suicide caused for more than only the deceased’s family and friends. The death by suicide of a local farmer and grocer hit their communities, even those who knew them only as customers.

Norton got a job offer from NAMI NH to lead an effort to start a suicide prevention program. The timing wasn’t right and he said no. When the person who took the job left six months later, NAMI NH asked again. Norton said yes.

Under his leadership, NAMI NH became a leader nationally and internationally in suicide prevention and post-suicide support work. In partnership with two other national nonprofits, it launched Connect, a community-based suicide prevention program.

The Pentagon called, wanting a presentation on best practices. Tribal nations did too. Norton accepted invites to Northern Ireland and five other countries. Today, NAMI NH has done trainings throughout New Hampshire and in more than 40 states.

“There was very little happening with suicide prevention,” Norton said. “Up until that time, suicide prevention had been primarily an individual casework thing.”

That casework included asking people to sign “no-harm contracts,” a promise not to take steps toward suicide. That approach showed a gross misunderstanding of suicide, Norton said.

“If you felt like you had a choice, maybe you would not need help at all,” Norton said.

Norton also came to understand the value of hearing directly from those living with mental illness.

“I learned so much from them, and I feel like I got back so much more from them than I ever gave in terms of their resilience and their courage,” Norton said of his work at Lakes Regain Mental Health. “And from the insights that they gained from the struggles they had been through.”

He believed others would, too, and became a relentless advocate for pairing trained “peer supporters” with others navigating their own or a family member’s illness. Against the advice of other NAMI chapters, Norton succeeded in getting Medicaid reimbursement for that peer work.

There’s plenty more progress to make, Norton said. There is still too much stigma, some insurance companies are still not providing mental health care coverage that’s equal to other health care, and the pandemic’s impact on children’s mental health is significant.

Susan Stearns was named executive director of NAMI NH this month. She has been with the organization for 13 years, the last five as deputy director.

That advocacy now belongs to Stearns.

She’s eager to continue the expansion that NAMI NH has seen in recent years, both in terms of educational programming, support groups, and volunteers, which number 200.

Its children’s program, which provides peer support to families as part of wraparound care, was supporting 175 families prior to the pandemic. Today, that’s grown to 450 families and 1,200 family members. Contact with families has increased 1,300 to 3,900 a month in that time.

She wants to fulfill the organization’s goal of diversifying its staff and programming. She sees the high numbers of adults and children waiting in emergency rooms for mental health crisis treatment as a sign of a “broken system.” (That number has reached 50 adults and more than 30 children during the pandemic.)

This month’s launch of the Rapid Response Access Point, a 24/7 phone line for help in a crisis, and statewide mobile crisis response teams will transform the state’s handling of acute crises, Stearns said. As will the addition of new inpatient mental health beds for adults and children.

Her priorities include going beyond that to create more options for “upstream” preventative care, such as community mental health counseling, as well as more “step down” support for those who are ready to leave a hospital but still need support before resuming independent living.

And she will continue the mission of NAMI NH’s founders: dispelling the stigma and discrimination that keeps people from seeking treatment for mental illness. She sees reason for optimism in young people like the Connect program youth leaders who met with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen last week

“They’re so open to talking about the need to have these conversations and make sure people understand that it’s OK to say you’re not OK and that help-seeking behavior is a good life skill,” she said.  “It was a tremendously heartening experience to be in the room and hear them.”

This story was republished with permission under New Hampshire Bulletin’s Creative Commons license. 

About this Author

Annmarie Timmons

Senior ReporterNH Bulletin

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.