Greater Nashua Mental Health fetes milestone

NASHUA – This year, the Greater Nashua Mental Health Clinic (GNMHC) is celebrating 100 years of service to their community and beyond. Although there will not be any notable events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the impressive century landmark has not gone unnoticed within the agency and region.

“We used the month of October, which includes mental health awareness week within that month, to kind of celebrate in-turn, for that entire month. We had a few staff events and I also did a couple radio appearances,” GNMHC President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Cynthia Whitaker said. “We kind of did a celebration a little bit internally and then with some of our folks.”

If it were not for COVID-19, Whitaker expressed that GNMHC would have more than likely held a gala, however, a large-scale celebration may not be off the table in years to come.

“This is our hundredth year of being established but, we actually weren’t incorporated until [about] three years later, so maybe we’ll have a redo of 100 years of being incorporated,” Whitaker explained, “when we don’t have to worry about this COVID stuff anymore.”

Since 1920, the human experience alone has drastically changed and adapted to our own creation. Throughout the agency’s history, it is evident that GNMHC has done the same right beside us.

“(GNMHC) started in 1920, [then known as the Community Council of Nashua (CNN)], as people kind of coming together, just concerned about what was happening in the city,” Whitaker said. “So they did things like chaperone dance halls and monitor street cars for sanitation and proper language… that kind of stuff.”

She added, “But it quickly moved into [a different type of] more civic focus, on folks with higher needs or that weren’t getting what they needed, so [that led to] some teaching of English to individuals that immigrated to the country in this area, and then quickly [became] things like a Polio Clinic and a Fresh Air Camp, where they brought kids from the city of Boston up to New Hampshire, and things like that.”

What rapidly came to follow was the establishment of what Whitaker referred to as a “Mental Hygiene Clinic” in 1924. As discussions enveloping mental health were taboo and often silenced, it wasn’t until 1963 that the federal Community Mental Health Act was passed by President John F. Kennedy with the goal of creating a: “new type of health facility, one which will return mental health care to the mainstream of American medicine, and at the same time upgrade mental health services.”

In the interim, the agency worked to decrease infant mortality with improvements in feeding and care, established the Fresh Air Camps and Polio Clinic as previously described by Whitaker, and established a Clinic for the Blind as eye injuries were common in the prominent mill-industry of Nashua during that time.

“The big milestone was in the 60s, with the Community Mental Health Act, which was supposed to bring people out of state institutions and establish community mental health centers,” Whitaker said. “Because we had this history of already doing things for the city, including this mental health hygiene clinic, it was just – boom! There we are, ready to do it. So we have essentially been a community mental health center, since there was such a thing as a community mental health center.”

Whitaker also noted that, that, “we were one of the first in New Hampshire and across the country…and we already knew a little bit of what we were doing, if you will, because we had that history… That’s when we really moved into a full kind of organizational history. That’s when they hired our first CEO executive director who was Dr. Zlatko Kuftinec.”

During Kuftinec’s 38-year-long career with CNN that started in 1967, a “Drug Abuse” Clinic was established in the early 70s that received federal funding to provide treatment for referrals from the court system alongside a drop-in clinic for substance misusing adolescents, CNN became GNMHC as the agency received Federal grant funding to be recognized as a “Community Mental Health Center,” and began reintegrating regional residents from the NH State Psychiatric Hospital back into the community to receive mental health treatment, and a 16-bed Community Crisis Center, including a 24-hour triage unit opened in 1998.

“We also were one of the early providers of substance use disorder treatment back in the 70s,” Whitaker said. “Similarly now, there’s a lot of push for integrative care and integrating mental health and substance use disorder treatment, but we’ve been doing it even before there was support to do it. I think that’s kind of another big thing that sets us apart.”

After Kuftinec’s retirement in 2005, Dr. Hisham Hafez, became the new Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer and shortly after started the Community Connections Mental Health Program at the Nashua District Court-a court diversion program for first-time offenders with mental illness by offering mandatory treatment in lieu of incarceration.

“In the early 2000s, we took on mental health court.” Whitaker said. “We were the first court diversion program in the state of New Hampshire with the Community Connections Mental Health Court Program, and then we took on drug court later on…So we’ve also always had a strong belief that people deserve treatment rather than incarceration if their problematic behaviors are the results of mental illness, or substance use disorder, so we’ve been really invested in that for quite some time.”

In 2016, the title was passed from Dr.Hafez to Craig Amoth, which was then passed to Whitaker earlier this year.

As the first woman CEO and President, Whitaker has been with GNMHC for over 14 years, starting as the coordinator of the state’s deaf services program then moved up by “taking on bigger and bigger programs throughout the agency” until she was ultimately promoted to her current position.

“My career has been devoted to community mental health because I’m a strong believer in social justice, if you will, and no matter anybody’s insurance, walk of life, ability to pay, may deserve the same level of care and the same quality treatment as anybody else. So it’s just been something I’ve always believed in and have just kind of dedicated my career to improving the services available here to individuals,” Whitaker said.

On the horizon for GNMHC, Whitaker predicts an increase of collaboration with other, similar organizations throughout the state to support those they serve in different ways.

“No singular organization can treat all the needs of an individual right? We’re whole people,” she said. “We have spiritual needs, physical needs, mental health needs, and so even in that we are doing some integrated care here… we can’t serve everybody to the ultimate that they need. So it’s important that we partner and create, just create easy ways for people to get access to all of the services that they need to lead the best life they can.”

Right now, GNMHC offers active open access programs, where individuals can either call or walk-in for a full-evaluation, and that same day will either receive a treatment plan through GNMHC or be redirected to a different facility if GNMHC is unable to meet their specific need.

“When I think about the future, it’s helping the community really understand what it is that we have to offer because there’s a lot of folks that could benefit from the intensity of the services that we have,” Whitaker said. “However, that also, means we’re defining who we don’t serve, and who is better served by others, which is what I mean by [in terms of] partnership.”

For more information about programs and services offered by GNMHC visit their website: https://gnmhc.org.