Publication date: 11/1/2022 9:49:08 PM
Modified date: 11/1/2022 9:48:16 PM
Susan Stearns was drawn to the field of mental health 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 needs.
“You have to become an advocate very quickly,” she said. “And so I did, it was something that created this career for me and I didn’t necessarily expect it. I go the way of so many moms and dads and other family members.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness named the New Hampshire Stearns its new CEO on Monday morning as former director Ken Norton steps down after more than a decade.
Stearns will be the fifth CEO in the nonprofit’s history after serving as Deputy Director of NAMI NH for nearly six years. Prior to this, Stearns worked with several other nonprofit organizations in New Hampshire, including Greater Nashua Mental Health, Harbor Homes and the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She moves to the new role on January 14.
“Susan has proven to be a fierce advocate for those struggling with mental illness and suicide,” said Ross Conti, chairman of the board. “Susan is able to start the business due to her extensive experience with both NAMI NH and the broader mental health system in New Hampshire.”
Stearns enters her position at a difficult time – COVID-19 has dire effects on mental illness. One study from 2020 found that a third of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.
However, she said, this moment in time also provides an opportunity to further destigmatize mental illness, with many people experiencing mental health challenges as a result of one common and endemic experience.
“We have an opportunity here to continue this conversation, and to keep it out of the light of day,” she said.
She said her top priority would be improving access to primary mental health care, such as making routine appointments easily available to those seeking help. She said access to care has been made worse by the lack of staff.
“They figured out that the next possible date would be in a few months,” she said. “Don’t make this call think, ‘In a few months, maybe I’ll need to talk to someone. “”
NAMI NH has been a forceful advocate for Granite Staters with mental illness for 40 years. Their advocacy has covered topics such as healthcare for mental illness, criminalization of people with serious mental illness and accessible housing.
In particular, the organization drew attention to the state’s emergency boarding crisis, in which patients wait in emergency rooms for days while waiting for a bed in a psychiatric facility to open.
The effort culminated in a court ruling in May requiring the state to provide a legal hearing within 72 hours of detaining adults in emergency departments.
Norton, the outgoing executive director of the organization who presided over that campaign, announced that he would be stepping down from his position and moving to new projects in early September. Norton said he still looks forward to “continuing to support the organization and its mission.” Norton said he leaves behind a strong organization.
“NAMI NH has never been stronger,” he said in a statement. “Our talented, hard-working employees advance our mission through innovative and expanded program offerings and collaborations across the state.”