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Upper Valley residents share stories of overcoming mental illness

  • Angela Montano, of, Claremont, N.H. washes dishes at her home on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. Montano experienced mental illness and addiction in her life. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Angela Montano, of Claremont, N.H., is now 15 years sober and works as a peer support specialist for West Central Behavioral Health. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Angela Montano and her partner Bill Farnsworth, both of Claremont, N.H., share an iced coffee on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Angela Montano and her partner Bill Farnsworth pick tomatoes in their garden in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, September 02, 2019

LEBANON — It wasn’t one thing that helped bring balance to Angela Montano’s life after many years of mental illness and substance use, it was several.

Montano, a 59-year-old Claremont resident who experienced trauma as a child growing up in West Hartford, Conn., said it was during an inpatient hospital stay at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon in 1999 that she first realized that she wasn’t alone. She also found peer support (and eventually a life partner) through Alcoholics Anonymous.

Montano’s recovery — she is now 15 years sober — also has been helped by medication and she has learned how to better manage her emotions through dialectical behavioral therapy, a form of therapy that aims to help people identify and change negative thinking patterns, she said.

“It can get better,” she said in a recent interview in her office in Claremont, where she has worked as a peer support specialist for West Central Behavioral Health, the Lebanon-based community mental health center, for nearly four years. “I really never thought that I would be in the place that I am today.”

Montano shared her story during an Aug. 14 event at Dartmouth-Hitchcock focused on the community mental health system, part of a series related to an art exhibit “99 Faces” of people affected by mental illness, that featured various speakers from all aspects of the system, patients, peers, providers and even the state’s commissioner of health.

Almost all of them shared a personal story of their own or a family member’s struggle with mental illness. In so doing, they demonstrated how common mental illness is and the way in which increased investment in mental health care could make it easier to access care.

Boston-based artist Lynda Michaud Cutrell, whose work is being exhibited, said she was inspired to create it after her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“You become an advocate when it hits your family,” she said.

Her photographs aim to demonstrate how many people are affected by mental illness and how many people are in recovery and contributing to society in various ways. She noted that some of the people in the photographs have doctorates. There’s also a medical doctor, a social worker and several authors, she said.

“People do find a different path,” she said.

In talking with those who have found recovery, Cutrell said she saw two commonalities: They had someone in their lives who loved them and remained in their lives despite their illness, and they had a purpose in life, she said.

“Not so different than those of us without symptoms,” she said.

Rob Aitcheson, now a peer support specialist at Lakes Region Mental Health Center in Laconia, N.H., described his experience surviving a suicide attempt in 2017. Aitcheson, who has bipolar depression and is in recovery from alcoholism, said that he makes a choice everyday between continuing his recovery and making another attempt.

“Today I choose life,” he said.

Aitcheson has found support in his family and friends, and a belief in god. He also has become a self-described “altruistic gunslinger” through his work at Lakes Region where he helps other people find the resources they need to navigate their own journeys with mental illness.

Dr. Diane Roston, clinical medical director of West Central Behavioral Health, said that her face also could be included in Cutrell’s exhibit.

“One way or another, don’t we all have a place on that wall?” she said.

Roston lost her husband, Richmond Middle School math teacher David Plaut, to suicide. He had a “bout of depression and he didn’t survive it,” she said. But, she said, she and their children have survived and “are all thriving.”

Dr. Will Torrey, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s vice chairman of clinical services in psychiatry who facilitated the event, drew a comparison between mental illness and cancer, which once carried a stigma similar to that of mental illness. But now, as his wife learned after being diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, the treatment is well organized and he said he would rank the care she received as a 10 out of 10.

Unfortunately, Torrey, who has been working as a psychiatrist in New Hampshire for more than three decades, said he would say mental health treatment in the U.S. is just a one or two out of 10.

While it is possible to deliver mental health treatment that ranks 10 out of 10, Torrey said that the persistent stigma around mental illness has made that difficult, as had a lack of resources.

“With some more money, the system is there that could really move forward in a powerful way,” Torrey said of New Hampshire’s community mental health centers.

New Hampshire Commissioner of Health and Human Services Jeffrey Meyers began his remarks by describing the struggle he had when trying to get a family member the mental health help they needed.

While Meyers said he was able to find help for his relative, it was difficult and required that he employ his skills navigating the bureaucracy.

But he said that others might not have mastered those skills, at least not to the same degree.

“What about the average person who doesn’t have that expertise?” he said. “They need to access the system as well.”

And so he said the state is working to eliminate barriers to care. For example, he said the state obtained a Medicaid waiver from the federal government in 2016 that has allowed providers to be reimbursed for services that aren’t usually covered by Medicaid. Now in its third year, the project is improving the way that mental health care is integrated into primary care practices, he said.

The goal is to make it “so there is no wrong door — no matter who you are,” he said.

Unlike traditional Medicaid, this waiver program provides funding for a range of social supports such as housing, transportation and child care that can make a difference in whether people are able to access the services they need to be healthy, he said.

Meyers also described the new 10-year mental health plan, which replaced the old one that had been developed in 2008, just as the recession hit and the state didn’t have the money to implement it. This time, with the economy strong, Meyers said the state is better positioned to put the plan into action.

The budget the Legislature approved — which Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has vetoed, but which Meyers said would likely go forward eventually — included funding to increase Medicaid rates for mental health services, as well as funds to move children from New Hampshire Hospital in Concord to Hampstead, which will free up beds at New Hampshire Hospital for adults.

Meyers said this will reduce the wait for beds at the state’s psychiatric hospital.

Meyers said the state also is making progress on the substance use front. For example, he said providers are working under new prescribing rules and the state recently opened its new hub and spoke model of treatment that aims to connect those seeking assistance with addiction with the level of care that they need.

Susan Stearns, of the advocacy group NAMI New Hampshire, said during the event that she agrees that the state is making progress on mental health.

“We’re at the brink of a sea change here in New Hampshire,” she said. “...(We) just need that budget — let’s make sure that happens.”

Valley News Staff Writer Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.