Mental health nonprofit NAMI NH names new executive director

  • Susan Stearns Courtesy

Concord Monitor
Published: 1/11/2022 9:49:08 PM
Modified: 1/11/2022 9:48:16 PM

Susan Stearns was drawn to the mental health field because of her family’s experience with the complex behavioral health care system.

Her son’s mental illness forced her to learn how to stand up for him and help him get the care he needed.

“You have to become an advocate really fast,” she said. “And so I did, and it’s been something that has created this career for me that I didn’t anticipate necessarily. I follow in the path of so many other mothers, fathers and family members.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness NH named Stearns as its new executive director Monday morning as prior director Ken Norton transitions from the role after more than a decade.

Stearns will be the fifth executive director in the nonprofit’s history after serving as NAMI NH’s deputy director for about six years. Before that, Stearns worked for several other New Hampshire nonprofits, including Greater Nashua Mental Health, Harbor Homes and the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She transitions to the new role on Jan. 14.

“Susan has proven to be a fierce advocate for those affected by mental illness and suicide,” said Russ Conte, the board president. “Susan is able to hit the ground running given her extensive experiences both with NAMI NH and the broader mental health system in New Hampshire.”

Stearns is entering her position at a difficult time — COVID-19 has dramatic implications for mental illness. One study from 2020 found that a third of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Even so, she said this moment in time also offers an opportunity to further destigmatize mental illness, as so many people are experiencing mental health challenges as a result of one common, endemic experience.

“We have an opportunity here to keep this conversation going, to keep it out in the light of day,” she said.

She said her top priorities will be to improve access to upstream mental health care, like making routine appointments readily available to those seeking help. She said access to care has been made substantially worse by staff shortages.

“They discover the next possible appointment is in several months,” she said. “You don’t make that call thinking, ‘In a few months, maybe I’ll need to talk to someone.’ ”

NAMI NH has staunchly advocated for Granite Staters with mental illness for 40 years. Their advocacy has covered topics such as healthcare for mental illness, criminalization of those with serious mental illness and accessible housing.

Most notably, the organization drew attention to the state’s emergency boarding crisis, during which patients wait in emergency rooms for days while waiting for a bed at a psychiatric facility to open.

The effort culminated in a court decision in May that required the state to provide a due process hearing within 72 hours of being detained for adults boarded in emergency departments

Norton, the organization’s outgoing executive director who headed that campaign, announced he would transition out of his role and move onto new ventures in early September. Norton said he still looks “forward to continuing to support the organization and its mission.” Norton said he is leaving a strong organization behind.

“NAMI NH has never been stronger,” he said in a statement. “Our talented and hardworking staff further our mission through innovative and expanded program offerings and collaborations throughout the state.”




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