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Turning green
Panel focused on city push to renewable energy

Nine months ago, area residents, business owners, students and volunteers packed into a room at Keene City Hall to urge councilors to take climate change seriously.

They delivered impassioned speeches about the need to shift away from fossil fuels, and they made emotional appeals while leaning on statistics about climate change across the planet.

And they made their point. By a 14-1 vote in January, the City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution that set high aspirations — for everyone in Keene to switch all electricity use to renewable sources by 2030 and to convert all heating and transportation by 2050.

Since then, a committee of local residents and leaders has been hard at work to help make this happen.

Keene’s energy and climate committee — the panel of mayor-appointed volunteers that proposed the energy resolution — has until December of next year to present a plan to bring it to fruition.

“They’ve been very busy on different ways to engage the community … because these goals are not just for the city [government], they’re for everyone in the city,” said Mari Brunner, a city planner who serves as the committee’s staff liaison.

A sense of urgency

Last year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued what a New York Times article described as a “landmark report” painting “a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought ...”

“The report,” the article continues, “... describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.”

Supporters of Keene’s energy resolution insisted the situation is critical, and that the city must do its part.

One way to mitigate the effects of climate change, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, is by switching from fossil fuels to natural, renewable sources.

These sources, such as solar energy and wind, don’t add carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Since the City Council approved Keene’s resolution, the makeup of the energy and climate committee has expanded from seven members to 11, and it has opened up to non-residents with the aim of involving community leaders who might live elsewhere.

The council has one seat on the panel, occupied by Ward 3 Councilor Terry M. Clark.

“Now we have really good representation from the county and [Keene State] College, which are two big sectors,” he said of the expanded membership.

A longtime advocate for green energy, Clark explained that the idea is to get people on the committee from a cross-section of industries. There are now representatives from the real estate sector and N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, and Clark said committee members are trying hard to also get someone from Cheshire Medical Center on board.

The committee meets monthly and works closely with Brunner, and city staff is hosting focus group sessions in the community to get direct feedback. Brunner said staff recently held the first of four of these sessions with landlords to learn more about how the city can help them reach the new energy goals and what they see as hurdles.

The other three will be for businesses, residents and institutions, the latter of which will encompass large nonprofit energy users such as Keene State and the hospital.

Separately, the committee is also planning “meetings in a box,” which will be facilitated by volunteers who will receive training and a kit with an agenda and other materials. These meetings have the advantage of being less restrictive in terms of location and format, according to Brunner.

“For example, it could be run at a park, if it’s nice out, or at the library,” she said.

While the committee will get indirect feedback from these “meetings in a box,” the hope is that these sessions might be more accessible to residents who either can’t make it to the committee’s other events or who might feel intimidated by the formal setting.

Larger workshops are also planned, including one in late October, though the details are still being determined.

Getting buy-in

Filtrine Manufacturing Co. President Peter Hansel is the committee’s vice chairman and agreed the focus has been on community engagement.

In a June committee meeting, Hansel offered information from Eversource that “fully two-thirds of Keene’s energy use comes from 2,000 commercial/industrial customers,” according to meeting minutes.

Getting widespread feedback is critical, he said, while adding that “we get the best bang for our buck, I guess, from focusing on the biggest energy users.”

As a business owner himself, Hansel said any outreach will have to acknowledge that not everyone can afford to put solar panels on their roof, nor is it practical for every building. Part of the committee’s job, he said, is to raise awareness of alternative ways to take part in the process, such as negotiating with power suppliers to opt for renewable energy. There are also lesser-known incentives for green energy projects, he added.

Making the plan palatable for the public at large will also be incorporated into the committee’s messaging.

Hansel noted that the energy goals aren’t mandatory, so they will require buy-in from the community to work. A piece of that puzzle comes from sharing “success stories” from Keene residents and business owners who are already on their way to 100 percent renewables, through solar panels, LED lighting and other energy efficiencies that can be replicated.

More than that, he said, the people behind these stories can explain to their neighbors why they found these projects viable and worth the time and money, and that could get others on board.

Some extra muscle

Along with community engagement, though, Brunner pointed out that professional assistance is key.

In June, the City Council gave City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon the go-ahead to negotiate and execute a contract for up to $45,000 for “energy planning consulting services,” the bulk of which came from unused personnel funds.

The consultant is vital to the plan’s success, Brunner said. The city is hiring someone from the Cadmus Group in Massachusetts, a company she said has experience in energy efficiency consulting and “expertise we don’t have on staff right now.”

That position is still in the negotiation phase, according to Brunner, but she said she expects someone to be hired in September. At that point, the committee can combine ongoing feedback from the community with input from the consultant to brainstorm ideas and start drafting the plan for achieving the new energy goals.

Councilor Clark said he’s happy with the committee’s progress so far. Beyond constituent service, he cited climate change as the most important issue to address as a public official.

“The people on this committee are incredibly excited and dedicated to this cause,” he said.

When the committee originally submitted the resolution to the council, the proposed deadline for the implementation plan was next April, but councilors pushed that to December. Clark, who disagreed, said he still thinks the committee could’ve handled the shorter timeline.

“But we’re gonna be ready,” he said. “I think we’re gonna be ready early.”

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New law helps schools snuff out vaping

With the start of a new year this past week, area schools are redoubling their efforts to stem the use of e-cigarettes and other vaping devices among students.

But administrators began the year with an extra tool in their tool box: a change in state law explicitly prohibiting vaping of any kind on school campuses.

Signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in July, the law clarifies that vaping devices and e-liquids are not allowed in schools, whether or not they contain nicotine or some type of restricted substance, such as cannabis. Previously, state law specifically referred only to devices containing nicotine.

Breaking the statute could result in a violation and a fine of up to $100 per offense.

While many schools already had their own policies in place restricting vaping, the law adds weight to those rules, area administrators said.

“I think what it offers is one more legal avenue from the standpoint of, [law enforcement] can be involved,” said Brett Blanchard, principal of Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School in Jaffrey. “So in the past, it would really necessitate an illegal substance, because the device in and of itself in the past was not necessarily illegal. Especially if you’re 18, which some seniors are.”

In 2018-19, 33 students in the Jaffrey-Rindge district — 27 high-schoolers and six middle-schoolers — were found to have used vaping devices, according to Nicholas Handy, a district spokesman.

Robert H. Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, said in some cases, students in the Keene School District have been issued a citation by the school resource officer for vaping-related incidents. The district saw 28 such incidents last year, he said.

“I think [the law] gives a little extra strength to schools and facilities where it may not have been as clear,” Malay said. “And so, I think if that serves a purpose of deterring our students, our young people, from using these devices and getting into those areas we don’t really want them to be getting into, I think the law serves a very good purpose.”

But Monadnock Region administrators agreed that whether police should be involved, and to what degree, must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“What I would like to see, if anything, is using law enforcement proactively rather than reactively to try to help send the message to kiddos that this is dangerous,” said Lisa A. Witte, superintendent of the Monadnock Regional School District.

Schools have been ramping up their prevention efforts, broaching the topic through assemblies, advisory time and outreach from student organizations. They’ve also engaged with parents and the wider community, such as with presentations from Monadnock Family Services or Breathe New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lung health issues.

Twenty-four percent of high school students in New Hampshire said they had used a vaping product in 2017, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, compared to 13 percent nationwide and 18 percent in the Monadnock Region. (See related story.)

In the Jaffrey-Rindge district, Blanchard said students and parents will be made aware that police might be called if the situation warrants it, like if a student is found vaping with an illegal substance.

But the district wants to focus on implementing a more therapeutic component to its response to vaping, he said, in some cases connecting students with cessation programs and other resources outside the school.

“The real message that we really need to keep getting out there happens to be the harmful effects. How well has crackdown worked on other things in this society, right?” Blanchard said. “It helps, but you really have to have a more positive message.”

Recent cases of what doctors believe are vaping-related illnesses have made news headlines over the past few weeks, stoking national conversations about how to keep youth from using the devices.

Calls for more research on the health effects of vaping have also amplified. A 2018 study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found increased levels of carcinogenic compounds in the urine of teenagers who vape compared with those who don’t.

Administrators pointed to the way these products are advertised as a significant factor in their popularity, noting that the bright colors and “fun” flavors — like bubblegum, cotton candy and watermelon — can draw youth in.

Witte said seeing people using the devices in public can also normalize it for students, much like cigarettes were normalized decades ago. The Monadnock district, which covers the towns of Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, recently revamped its health curriculum to include more information about the dangers of vaping, she said.

“There’s the opportunity when you look at curriculum to make it more contemporary. So this is something that we can certainly include as part of when we talk about healthy lifestyles,” she said.

School counselors can also play a significant role in prevention and response efforts on campus, Malay said, such as Keene High’s student assistance counselor, Jennifer Whitehead, who students may be referred to in instances of vaping.

These efforts are just as important as the legal underpinning, he said.

“I don’t think that there’s a silver bullet that’s going to change anything,” Malay said. “I think it’s a combination of things that is going to have the greatest impact over a larger group of individuals — whether it’s the state law, whether it’s the awareness that we’re trying to do.”

CDC investigating possible vape-related lung disease

New Hampshire hasn’t had any reported cases of a serious lung disease among teens and young adults that’s prompted federal agencies to investigate a possible link to nicotine- and marijuana-based vaping products.

But the rate vaping has increased among youth is still a concern, said Patricia Tilley, deputy director for the state’s Division of Public Health Services.

Twenty-four percent of high school students in New Hampshire said they’d used a vaping product in 2017, Tilley said, compared to 13 percent nationwide. For the Monadnock Region, the rate was 18 percent.

“We have a whole new generation of people who are addicted to nicotine that we didn’t have before,” she said.

Vaping refers to inhaling vapor from a device such as an e-cigarette, which frequently involves heating a liquid that can contain nicotine, marijuana or other substances. Those active ingredients are delivered in solvents.

People with the lung disease often experience symptoms gradually, including breathing difficulty, shortness of breath and chest pain before being hospitalized, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other symptoms reported were vomiting, diarrhea, fever and fatigue.

In the CDC’s statement Friday, officials advised that “anyone who does use e-cigarette products should not buy these products off the street (e.g., e-cigarette products with THC or other cannabinoids) and should not modify e-cigarette products or add any substances to these products that are not intended by the manufacturer.”

Since June, at least 215 potential cases, including one death in Illinois, have been reported, the CDC said in a news release Friday.

The sudden onset of these illnesses has led investigators to focus on contaminants, rather than vaping products that have been on the market for several years.

“More information is needed to better understand whether there’s a relationship between any specific products or substances and the reported illnesses,” Friday’s news releases states. “At this time, there does not appear to be one product involved in all of the cases, although THC and cannabinoids use has been reported in many cases.”

Tilley said vape companies target young adults through the various flavorings available.

Federal law bans these flavors in cigarettes — excluding menthol — but not in products such as e-cigarettes, according to the Truth Initiative’s website.

“When you are flavoring something as mango madness or cotton candy, you’re not targeting a lifetime smoker,” Tilley said.

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Institutionalization back on the table?

On the heels of President Donald Trump floating the idea of bringing back old-school psychiatric institutions to combat gun violence, a local mental health agency and other area advocates are speaking out.

Before and during his Aug. 15 rally in Manchester, when referencing the recent massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the president said building more institutions for people with mental illness would be a better way of preventing mass shootings than implementing broader gun control measures.

“We will be taking mentally deranged and dangerous people off the streets so we won’t have to worry so much about that,” he told the crowd at the SNHU Arena.

Trump also called for more asylums after the Parkland, Fla., shooting in 2018, but now the rhetoric has progressed to potential policy changes.

The White House has also been mulling a proposal to use artificial intelligence to identify potential mass shooters — using data from devices such as Apple Watch, Amazon Echo, Google Home and Fitbit — modeled after the Pentagon’s early intervention anti-terrorism program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to an Aug. 22 Washington Post report.

Trump’s comments have fueled a broader discussion about the state of mental health care in the United States, along with concerns about a lack of empirical evidence backing up his claims; due process; and reinforcing the stigma of mental illness.

‘Just scapegoating’

Gun control has long been a fraught topic that people have intertwined with mental health in response to some of the more horrific mass shootings, such as the 2012 murders of students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

But Trump’s insistence that mental illness — experienced by one in five Americans — and gun violence are correlated has frustrated local mental health providers, who cite data indicating people with these diagnoses are largely nonviolent.

Monadnock Peer Support’s Executive Director Peter Starkey even released a statement on the center’s behalf recently to dispute the president’s remarks.

“The comment is really flawed because it draws [on] a long-standing misconception that mental health equals gun violence,” Starkey said. “When you draw a direct line between mental health and gun violence, you are just scapegoating.”

Mental illness, though long suspected as a primary cause of mass shootings, is attributable to only about three percent of violent crimes, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Additional research published by the APA found that problems with self-esteem and perceived social rejection are common characteristics among people who commit mass shootings.

“There is the sort of common person, or reasonable person, who might say, ‘Anybody that goes out and shoots x-number of people, there’s something wrong with them,’ ” said Ken Norton, the executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Concord. “But, you know, there’s a difference between bad and evil, and mental illness. And I think that’s what we need to be clear about here.”

People with mental health disorders are also more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators, said Louis Josephson, president and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat.

“The fact is, people with mental illness are 11 times more likely to be a victim of violence,” Josephson said, a statistic that’s echoed on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mental health page.

But rather than dealing with the gun problem, Starkey said, those in power shift the blame to easy targets.

“When we are struggling with a violent gun problem, and we blame mental health, they know these people can’t fight back,” Starkey said. “So these people who are depressed every single day now have this image of being a threat. They are struggling and can’t defend themselves.”

Nevertheless, Trump’s comments have elicited a nostalgia for psychiatric institutions and reignited calls from Republicans to act on mental health rather than firearms.

This month, Fox News aired several segments on the subject during its primetime opinion lineup of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.

The Republican governors of Texas and Ohio — Greg Abbott and Mike DeWine — have blamed mental illness for the recent shootings in their states, but stopped short of calling for the return of asylums.

A ‘very high bar’

While early advocates in the American mental hygiene movement like Clifford Beers sounded the alarm bell on psychiatric institutions as early as 1908 with the book “A Mind That Found Itself” — an autobiographical account of abuse Beers suffered while institutionalized for what would now be considered schizophrenia — the deinstitutionalization movement began in earnest in the 1960s.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, a series of lawsuits and court decisions catalyzed a shift from large institutions to a more community-based approach, with New Hampshire’s Laconia State School — formerly known as the N.H. School for Feeble-Minded Children — closing in 1991.

That shift, according to Trump and some local Republicans, has been a source of homelessness and violence.

“We’ve gone — I mean across the country — all the facilities have been closed with the intent of integrating, and all it’s done is create a terrible situation of homelessness, and then you have some who act out and do something violent, because they’re not getting the care,” Marilyn Huston, chairwoman of the Cheshire County Republican Committee, said, adding that there should be an increase in both short- and long-term care facilities for people with mental illness.

Ann Savastano, a Keene Republican who rode with Huston on a chartered bus to and from Trump’s Manchester rally, reacted to the president’s remarks when interviewed by The Sentinel afterward.

“I think it depends on, really, how humane it is,” Savastano, of Keene, said of Trump’s proposal to bring back asylums. “If it’s just, you know, cities and states letting people out because they don’t want the expense of it, I think that needs to be looked at, because it’s clear that if it can be done humanely and responsibly — and that would be the key thing — and not as it was done sort of haphazardly and deplorably ... back in the ’50s and ’60s, it would be an excellent idea.”

But Gary Barnes, executive director of Maps Counseling Services in Keene, refutes the idea that institutionalization would reduce gun violence, explaining that the ability to predict violence is slim.

“Unless someone already has a long history of being violent, we have no idea who is going to become violent and who’s not,” Barnes said. “You would just end up institutionalizing thousands, if not millions, to try and prevent something that is very rare.”

Josephson, along with Barnes and Starkey, said he couldn’t think of a circumstance that would warrant someone being institutionalized indefinitely. At the Brattleboro Retreat, he said most inpatient treatment is done within a week’s time, even for chronic mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

“[Inpatient care] is absolutely valuable, just like you would have a medical crisis and be in an ICU for a little bit,” he said. “But people aren’t here for months and weeks and weeks at a time. We stabilize people, and we look at their medications, and then they are back to work, family, community.”

Josephson also noted it’s a “very high bar” to be admitted into a mental health facility. The person needs to be a serious danger to themselves or others, or must be so distraught they can no longer take care of themselves.

Most commonly, he said the retreat’s inpatient unit treats people with depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

But the idea of isolating people only exacerbates their mental illness, according to Starkey. Stripping people of their every day connections is dangerous, he said, which is why community-based services are imperative.

“Our focus must be on keeping individuals with mental health in the communities of their choice, while developing more robust options of support that build relationships, strengthen community and provide opportunities for advocacy,” Starkey said in the agency’s statement. “We must not return to the failed practices of the past.”

Statewide strides

At the state level, Norton said he thinks Granite Staters are far more nuanced than people in other parts of the country when discussing mental health. Resources remain an issue, he said, with bed shortages for short-term hospitalization and Cheshire Medical Center closing its psychiatric wing in 2016, but progress is being made.

NAMI NH “felt that the president’s comments did not reflect the will or the beliefs of the people of the state of New Hampshire,” Norton said. “I think our Legislature and our governor, right now — bipartisan — it’s been very clear in terms of the steps that they took to move forward.”

Gov. Chris Sununu, in a statement issued Aug. 9 as he vetoed three gun-control bills, said: “Our focus as a nation must be on addressing the root causes of hate and violence. Here in New Hampshire, we have taken multiple steps to address our mental health needs and to build a more welcoming and tolerant state. “

Norton cited the Granite State’s 10-year mental health plan released this past January, which set goals for improving community-based service providers.

Norton, along with state Rep. Joe Schapiro, D-Keene, a retired social worker, said even more help could come after Sununu signed Senate Bill 11 into law in May. The bill provides funding for designated receiving facility (DRF) beds to ease the burden on hospitals housing patients in psychological crises awaiting treatment.

However, Schapiro said there remains a broader lack of funding, and the uncertainty amid the state budget impasse only makes matters worse.

“I think it’s a real problem in our country that mental health services are not funded adequately, and it’s specifically a big problem in New Hampshire, because there are so many competing needs for funds with public education, infrastructure — and mental health funding is just one of those things,” Schapiro said.

Norton added that it’s frustrating for advocates when some politicians are willing to discuss mental health only after mass shootings.

“I think it’s really disingenuous when politicians, after these shootings, make this connection with people with mental illness,” Norton said. “And I’m talking outside of New Hampshire. Because if they really believed that, why haven’t they invested in a strong mental health system for our country?”