NH News
5:58 pm
Thu February 9, 2012

Group Sues the State Over Mental Health System

A federal class action lawsuit has been filed against New Hampshire for failing to take care of people with mental illness.

The suit comes less than a year after the U.S. Department of Justice charged the state with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Plaintiffs want the state to invest in more community services so more people can live independently.

Some lawyers say New Hampshire’s current mental health system is interrupting and in some cases, destroying people’s lives.

Newport resident Mandy D., 22, is confident.

If you couldn’t see that it in her bright turquoise and fuchsia feathered earrings, you could hear it in her words.

“Something that I say is: 'My name is Mandy. I’m not bi-polar,' ” she says.

Mandy is one of the lead plaintiffs in this lawsuit. She describes herself as an award winning poet, an animal lover, and one day would like to work in a veterinarian’s office. But with her diagnosis – bi-polar disorder – it’s not so easy to get there.

“When I’m having an issue, sometimes I am suicidal, or I just want to hurt myself,” she says.

Mandy’s mom Louise can see the storm blowing in on her daughter’s face and there’s nothing Louise can do. “If she comes upstairs and doesn’t want to be touched, backs away, doesn’t talk," says her mother. "You can tell she’s slipping away. I know that I am going to end up with her in the emergency room in order to keep her safe.”

Mandy's been in and out of New Hampshire Hospital 20 times.

“Certainly Mandy is someone who could live a much more full and meaningful life if certain supports were available to her," says attorney Amy Messer is with the New Hampshire Disabilities Rights Center, one of the groups suing the state.

At its essence, Messer says the lawsuit is trying to force the state to provide services that people with mental illness need. “The vast majority of people with mental illness, the vast, vast majority of people with mental illness can live independently," she says. "They may need some level of support. Sometimes that need is higher, and sometimes it’s lower.”

Messer says the problem with New Hampshire’s system is there aren’t day-to-day supports for people: the aide to make sure someone gets to work, the group home, the trained mental health worker to calm someone in a crisis.

Instead, the system is more like all or nothing. Either there are no services, or a person finds themselves with the most extreme services – admission to the state’s psychiatric hospital. “But most people do not need this highly intensive and very expensive hospitalization," she says.

The Disabilities Rights Center has been in negotiations with state officials over just what these community services should look like. The two sides, however, can’t agree.

Anne Edwards at the Attorney General’s Office says the state’s prepared to defend itself. “The state believes that it is providing adequate services for the individuals in our state who need mental illness services,” she adding that the state will respond to the lawsuit within 30 days.

Mandy, a lead plaintiff, is asked how she feels about the case. If she were to write a poem about it, she says, the poem would be positive and hopeful.