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Shaheen Visits Claremont Clinic To Hear About Substance Abuse

  • U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., listens to Melissa Courtright, left, of Claremont, N.H., talk about what is needed to combat substance abuse in the state at West Central Behavioral Health in Claremont, on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. "We need more beds for people to get treatment," Courtright, who is a client of the facility, said. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., listens to Suellen Griffin, CEO and president of West Central Behavior Health, discuss the state's opioid crisis and the facility's substance use disorder treatment programs in Claremont, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., meets with the leadership team, clinicians, and a client of West Central Behavioral Health in Claremont, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2018 1:01:55 AM
Modified: 8/20/2018 11:59:42 AM

Claremont — U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., did a circuit of the waiting room at West Central Behavioral Health’s newest facility on Elm Street, shaking every other hand, and repeating the names of people she was meeting for the first time.

No introductions were necessary for Suellen Griffin, president and CEO of West Central, who was hosting Shaheen in her visit to the Substance Use Services outpatient clinic to discuss the opioid epidemic that has plagued Sullivan County in recent years. The epidemic led to the decision to open the Substance Use Services clinic in May.

“We looked at community needs,” Griffin said. “We said, ‘Well, there’s a little bit of services up in the Lebanon area.’ ... We looked at Sullivan County, and we looked at the Claremont-Newport area, and there were no services for substance use.”

Trailed by staff of both the clinic and the senator, Griffin gave Shaheen a quick tour of the facility, which formerly housed medical offices. Half of the space is empty white walls, with metal folding chairs still packed in boxes. Griffin hopes to staff up by September, but right now, there only are a couple of counselors working from the site.

The agency gives counseling, treatment and support to about 2,200 people in need of mental and behavioral health care from five locations in Lebanon, Claremont and Newport, Griffin said. She anticipates serving an additional 100 at the new clinic, which provides treatment and counseling services for substance use and mental health needs. “But it’s a slow start. We’re probably less than 20 right now.”

For about an hour, patients, counselors, administrators and city officials all spoke about an opioid treatment landscape that looks vastly different depending on a person’s perspective.

Melissa Courtright, a client in recovery for substance use, came to the clinic to meet and share her story with Shaheen.

“For me, I had to go to residential treatment. I had to do in-patient. That was not available to me in New Hampshire when I called,” Courtright said.

And so, a few years ago, Courtright paid to fly to Santa Monica, and enter a residential treatment program there.

In some ways, it felt like she was escaping just in time.

“The week that I left for Santa Monica, four people that I knew died from an overdose, and eight were arrested,” Courtright said.

New Hampshire has the second-highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in the country, with triple the national rate. In Sullivan County alone, 29 people died of drug overdoses between 2013 and 2017, according to West Central, which also cites studies showing that the county’s high schoolers are more likely to use heroin and cocaine than their peers statewide.

In California, with support from services that she could not access back home, Courtright was able to find some measure of peace.

“I checked myself into a sober living (facility) for two years. And I stayed there. Then I came back home. For me, personally, I needed that community and that time to stay sober,” she said.

Now, back in Claremont, Courtright said she gets some services three times a week, plus church. She tries to surround herself with sober people, and volunteers as a recovery coach. In a month, she’ll have three years of sobriety under her belt.

“It has not been easy,” she said.

For counselors who have devoted their professional lives to helping those in need, the epidemic has increased a sense that they could do so much more for their clients — if only the system were structured in a way that allowed it.

“I’ve seen a lot,” said David Chmielecki, who’s been working as a substance abuse counselor for 12 years. “I was actually at ground zero when the opioid epidemic got declared.”

He told Shaheen that many of his clients built up protracted criminal histories, including DUIs and vehicular manslaughter, before they were channeled into his office.

“I had a client who had 54 emergency room visits in 10 months. ... The longer they stay without help, the longer they’re disenfranchised from all of society, thinking that they can’t recover,” Chmielecki said. “That it’s all over.”

David Pelletier, a mental health counselor for West Central, expressed frustration at the limitations of treatment funding that is targeted only to adults.

“We don’t get them in this program until they’re 18 and above. I mean, it’s incredible over time. We’ve seen people 13, 14 starting to use opiates and heroin at that point,” he said. “By the time they’re 18, they’re already established.”

And Griffin said that, from an agency level, the opioid epidemic often looks like a staffing crisis.

“If we could hire people who could treat these kids, we would start it tomorrow,” she said.

The difficulty in attracting staff, she said, is the main reason that half of the clinic is still just so much empty space. Griffin also said federal regulations bog down staff with paperwork, and make it difficult to make best use of advanced nurse practitioners.

“Practitioners can prescribe medications including suboxone now, but they can’t sign treatment plans,” she said. “That kind of administrative burden, making sure that all of their clients are co-signed by a psychiatrist or another (doctor) just doesn’t make any sense. It’s clearly just a rule barrier.”

For Claremont Mayor Charlene Lovett, the epidemic raises questions of how to maintain social service agencies and provide safe spaces in the community.

For example, Hope for New Hampshire Recovery announced in February that it was closing its Claremont office, provoking an outcry from community stakeholders.

“You’re not going to just close us off and leave us hanging,” Lovett said, noting that the community mobilized to raise local and state funding to reopen the center (a ribbon cutting is planned for later this year).

Lovett also talked about a faith-based organization that opened a substance-free nightclub in Claremont, run by volunteers and donations.

“It’s become a hot spot on Friday nights downtown, not only for people dealing with drug addiction issues, but also just young people. ... You would think you were walking into a nightclub in Boston or New York City,” she said.

As each person spoke, Shaheen listened, and asked follow-up questions.

Earlier this year, Shaheen and New Hampshire’s other Democratic U.S. senator, Maggie Hassan, helped lead a successful effort to change the funding formula used by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to award grants to states to treat opioid addiction. As a result, New Hampshire is getting $46 million over fiscal years 2018 and 2019, as compared with the $3 million it received in recent years under the old formula.

But now, Shaheen said, she’s trying to identify the barriers that stand between that money, and all the potential good it represents.

Shaheen asked Griffin more about the administrative burden she faced.

“Is it an insurance issue? Is it federal requirements, state requirements?”

And near the end of the hour, she turned to Courtright.

“As you’re thinking about what I should be saying to people in Washington about what we need, what we want to see done,” she said, “what would you ask me to tell people?”

Courtright put her hands on her face, momentarily flummoxed. Then she lowered them.

“We need more beds for treatment. We need more help for people. We need more opportunities for people to get help,” she said. “Not everybody can fly to Santa Monica.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.


West Central Behavioral Health holds outpatient clinical hours for its substance use services program in Claremont on Tuesdays through Thursdays. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the clinic had been cleared of patients to accommodate a visit on Friday by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

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