New Somersworth mental health panel begins its work. Here’s a look at its goals.

New Somersworth mental health panel begins its work. Here’s a look at its goals.

Megan Fernandes
Fosters Daily Democrat

SOMERSWORTH — The city’s new Hilltop Mental Health and Wellness Commission is laying the groundwork for proactively approaching mental health now and in the future.

The goal is the eventual creation of a Somersworth Mental Health Alliance.

The commission, which brings together city and school officials with community organizations, had its first meeting Monday. It will examine, study and implement systems which foster, promote, and support mental health, wellness and recovery support to all city and school employees, students and residents of the Hilltop City.

Mayor Dana Hilliard said he created the commission to help make Somersworth a mental health, wellness, and substance recovery friendly community. It has been in the works for six months, and Hilliard calls the commission “the next step” in ensuring all of the stakeholders’ voices are heard.

Getting mental health support systems in place

“This journey is a marathon, not a sprint,” Hilliard said. “Similar to the work of the Homeless Commission and the Drug Task Force Commission, this is going to create a systematic approach to setting up support systems in place. We want to embed the expertise and practices of community partnerships, like SOS Recovery and the Dover Mental Health Alliance and others, in our own practices to ensure all mental health needs are met in our community.”

The commission currently includes two School Board members, Todd Marsh and Maggie Larson, City Councilors Don Austin and Ken Vincent; Suzanne Weete from Community Partners and Dover Mental Health Alliance; Hilliard; Mary Boisse from SOS Recovery; and Ashley Wright from Goodwin Community Health.

The Dover Mental Health Alliance shares a similar mission to the one Somersworth aims to create: to build a resilient community that is educated, responsive and conscious of the impact of mental illness.

Weete said this effort isn’t an attempt to exactly replicate the Dover Mental Health Alliance, but to initiate a similar effort in Somersworth with the city’s own identity and needs in mind. 

“It’s an exciting step for Somersworth,” Weete said. “We’re glad that the impact of the Dover Mental Health Alliance is reaching beyond its borders and taking form in its own right in another community. Mental health affects all communities, so this work will help Somersworth address the individual challenges it faces.”

Hilliard said Somersworth has a lot to learn from the efforts in Dover.

“We hope to create a network where people feel that they have some place to turn for services, education, support and hope,” Hilliard said. “By examining what our partners in Dover have done, we can one day set up a similar mental health alliance in Somersworth.”

Todd Marsh is the welfare director for the city of Rochester, a member of the Somersworth School Board and vice president of the Tri-City Fidelity Committee on Homelessness. He will bring his experience in his latest role as chair of this new commission. Marsh is passionate about promoting mental health services in schools and beyond.

Normalizing mental health care

“This is a historic moment in time for Somersworth,” Marsh said. “It’s time to acknowledge mental health and well-being is the foundation of academic success, employment success and an overall quality of life. The city government and the school district strive to do more. Local leaders taking the first step to reach out to mental health professionals and start these difficult, but needed conversations.”

Marsh said while the first meeting primarily laid the organizational groundwork for the commission, it was the start of honestly looking inward at what the city is doing well and what it could be doing better. This included discussing what resources are available and what resources are lacking, what support systems currently exist and what should be in place.

The city’s community partners will help facilitate and educate the commission. Weete said these efforts are about changing mindsets of how the community views mental health and the stigma attached to seeking help.

“Mental health and physical health are equally important,” Weete said. “Becoming a mental health and recovery friendly Somersworth is a signal that people can feel comfortable in seeking resources, and change the conversation so addressing mental health is normalized and people can get help without feeling shame or discrimination.”