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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Mental health model used throughout NH

Staff Writer

NASHUA - Years of drinking and being involved in toxic relationships were catching up to Nancy Williams.

"My life was completely out of control," she said. "My life was completely ruled by alcoholism." ...

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NASHUA - Years of drinking and being involved in toxic relationships were catching up to Nancy Williams.

"My life was completely out of control," she said. "My life was completely ruled by alcoholism."

She ended up in trouble with the law and eventually found herself before a judge. However, instead of having to deal with a lengthy jail sentence, Williams was given an opportunity to change her life.

"I know it's odd to say that court was the best thing for me, but it was," she said.

Williams didn't have her case heard in a typical criminal court - instead, she went to the Community Connections Mental Health Court in Nashua. The mental health court, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this month, deals with people suffering from serious mental illness who are charged with crimes but don't necessarily go to jail.

People in the mental health court are required to sign a treatment plan and stick to it. That means therapy and a regime of medication to deal with their illnesses.

"It's not a 'get out of jail' card," said Jill O'Neill, with Community Connections. "They are working hard to change their lives."

People in the mental health court system can avoid jail time and have their charges dismissed if they follow through on the treatment plan. Judge James Leary said the court fills a real need by treating mentally ill people in the criminal justice system instead of jailing them.

"Twenty percent of people in jail have a serious mental illness," he said. "There is not treatment in jail for people with mental illness."

The mentally ill spend three to four times longer in jail or prison - and, if untreated, they are more likely to return, Leary said. The recidivism rate for the mentally ill is 67.5 percent, he said. They often have substance abuse disorders from trying to self-medicate their illness.

Leary knew, after seeing mentally ill suspects in his court charged with crimes that stemmed from their diseases, that there had to be a better way. He was not alone, and he became part of the effort, along with former Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and other community leaders, to find that better way.

"If you talk to each other, you can change things and make things happen," Lozeau said.

Working with social workers, medical professionals, lawyers, police officers and others, Nashua started the court. Former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, who established the state Task Force on Mental Health and Criminal Justice - himself an advocate for the mentally ill - said Nashua's court has become a model for 13 others in the state, as well as court systems throughout the county. Treating people with mental illness is important to Broderick.

"The two facts you need to know about people with mental illness is one, they don't deserve it, and two, they didn't ask for it," he said.

In 2002, Broderick's adult son, John Christin Broderick, while suffering from an episode of mental health crisis, attacked his father, hitting him in the face with a guitar and breaking the bones in the then-chief justice's face.

John Christian Broderick ended up going to prison for the assault and has received treatment since. Now that he is free and healthy, his father has dedicated himself to working on behalf of the mentally ill. He said Nashua's court is going a long way toward that goal.

"We need to change the culture on mental illness," the elder Broderick said.

When Suzanne Forte came to court, it was for repeated counts of shoplifting. Leary said Forte was compulsively stealing even though she had money for the goods she was taking.

"I don't know why I'm doing this," she told the judge at the time.

After almost two years of therapy and medications, and reconnecting with her family, Forte had her cases closed in the mental health court.

"I hope I never let you down," she said.

Damien Fisher can be reached at 594-6531 or