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Summer Bentley of Swanzey took this photo of autumn foliage on a foggy morning Sunday in Dublin.

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Data points to growing mental health issues for NH kids

Children comprised a large portion of the waiting lists for psychiatric treatment in August, raising concerns about the effect the pandemic has had on the mental health of the state’s youth.

For the last eight years, the state has struggled with a psychiatric boarding crisis. Faced with a shortage of beds in psychiatric facilities, those struggling with mental illness stayed instead in emergency departments of hospitals — sometimes for weeks at the peak of the crisis— as they waited for their names to be moved off a waiting list.

In late August, there was a spike in the number of people waiting for psychiatric beds. That led to 71 people, the second-highest number in over eight years, waiting in emergency rooms or prisons for a bed to open up.

However, mental health advocates have noticed a disturbing new trend — children made up a large portion of the waiting list. During the last peak in 2017, there was only one child on a 72-person list. However, last month, children have comprised sometimes more than half of the list. On Aug. 14, there were 26 children waiting for a bed in a psychiatric facility, about 65 percent of the total number.

Susan Stearns, the deputy director of NAMI New Hampshire, said this is especially worrisome because it was happening in August. Typically, the number of children in need of psychiatric care increases in May, likely because of pressures from school.

In March, at the start of the pandemic, the number of people waiting in an emergency room for a psychiatric bed hit zero for the first time in eight years. The state had worked to empty the waiting list in preparation for coronavirus patients in the hospital.

But over the next five months, mental health advocates slowly saw the numbers reemerge — higher than they had seen in years. The sharp increase could suggest that stressors from the pandemic, like uncertainty about when in-person school will return, could be taking a toll on kids in the state.

Kathy Ungarelli, the director of the Bureau Of Children’s Behavioral Health, said while there is no definitive data, she has heard anecdotal evidence that many of the children waiting for help are new to the psychiatric system. She said children who have thrived in the traditional classroom setting are struggling with online learning, which can be isolating for those who rely on social interaction from school.

The state opened a transitional housing program earlier this month, to house those coming out of psychiatric treatment and expedite how quickly new patients can fill their beds. Since then, Stearns said there has been a slight decline in the number of people on the waiting list.

As part of the state’s 10-year mental health plan, Ungarelli said the state has also moved all of the psychiatric beds for children from New Hampshire Hospital to Hampstead Hospital to address their specific needs and free up more adult beds in N.H. Hospital.

Addressing the boarding crisis will not be as easy as just building new beds, Stearns said. She said in addition to seeing a surge in patients, psychiatric facilities are simultaneously handling a staff shortage. As in many other facets of the healthcare industry, COVID-19 has exacerbated the chronic problems hiring and maintaining staff in inpatient psychiatric facilities.

“You can put all the money you want into more beds,” she said. “Even if you have all the beds, you have to have appropriate staffing.”

Hampstead has not been filling all of their available beds for children, because they lack the staff to care for more patients. They are looking to open an additional unit of beds once they finish a new round of hiring.

While Stearns trusts the department of health to prioritize mental health, she worries the pandemic might derail the 10-year mental health plan in the same way the 2008 recession sidelined the last 10-year plan.

“For those of us who have been around for a long time, we remember it well,” she said. “It would be unrealistic not to be concerned.”

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Funding or not, Spectrum plans high-speed Internet for West Keene

Despite not getting the public funding it applied for, Spectrum will move ahead with a project to connect several Keene roads that don’t have reliable access to high-speed Internet, a spokeswoman for Charter Communications said Monday.

Charter, which owns Spectrum, will fund 100 percent of the project, spokeswoman Lara Pritchard told The Sentinel in an email. She said the company is aiming to bring high-speed Internet to more than 75 homes by the summer of 2021.

“Charter is continually extending its high-speed network to additional residential and business locations, as part of a commitment to expand access to broadband to unserved and underserved communities throughout its 41-state service area,” Pritchard said. “Charter is excited to announce its extension of service to Hurricane, Chesterfield, Langley and Daniels Hill roads” in Keene.

She added that Spectrum offers speeds of 100 Mbps and connections up to 1 Gb per second.

Mayor George Hansel posted on social media last week that the project was moving forward.

“Fortunately, Spectrum has decided to go ahead with the project anyway,” Hansel said, “which I think is great news for the residents on the west side that have really just struggled to have adequate Internet service. They pretty much just have DSL as an option, so this will extend cable and faster speeds for them.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to work remotely, Internet access became critical, and gaps in that access became more apparent. While many workers have since gone back to their usual places of business, many are still working from home, and most schools locally are still using remote or hybrid instruction models.

In June, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that $50 million in CARES Act funding would be earmarked to assist with broadband projects in rural areas of the state. The goal of the Connecting NH Emergency Broadband Expansion Program, he said, is to assist homes and businesses without access to reliable Internet. Sununu noted that schools, libraries and other places where Internet use is essential would also be eligible.

The aim is to connect places “where we clearly need to make investments to help make sure that we’re closing those gaps that may have either been exacerbated by, or made more problematic through, the COVID crisis,” Sununu said during a June news conference.

Spectrum originally applied for a $189,750 grant from the broadband expansion program to connect 76 homes to high-speed Internet on the four roads in Keene. Those streets are all on the city’s west side, with all but Hurricane Road in the southwestern corner.

The first round of funding through the program, announced in early August, awarded $6.5 million to projects in eight New Hampshire towns, including Stoddard and Hillsboro. The second round awarded $14 million to projects in 17 towns. In the Monadnock Region, Stoddard and Hillsboro were on the list for a second time, along with Hinsdale and Nelson.

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Keene white nationalist found guilty of threatening and extortion
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A federal jury on Monday found Christopher C. Cantwell, the white nationalist podcaster known for his role in the 2017 Unite the Right rally, guilty of threatening and extortion charges in what prosecutors called a scheme to unmask the identity of another online white nationalist.

Cantwell, 39, of Keene, has been in jail since his arrest this past January. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 4, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Concord.

Over the course of a four-day trial last week in U.S. District Court in Concord, federal prosecutors presented multiple witnesses and voluminous messages, social-media posts and audio recordings cataloguing Cantwell’s actions last year.

The allegations arose out of a feud between Cantwell and an online group the other man belonged to — a collective of pseudonymous white nationalists known as the “Bowl Patrol” who have glorified racist and anti-Semitic mass murderers.

In June 2019, angered by what he felt was the group’s harassment of him, Cantwell sent a series of messages over the app Telegram to Bowl Patrol member Benjamin Lambert of Winfield, Mo., who went by the online pseudonym “Cheddar Mane.”

In the messages, which were displayed in court last week, Cantwell threatened to post pictures of Lambert’s family, tell online followers where he lived and call child protective services on him unless he revealed the identity of the Bowl Patrol’s leader, who went by “Vic Mackey” online. He also made what prosecutors described as a rape threat against Lambert’s wife.

“So if you don’t want me to come and [expletive] your wife in front of your kids, then you should make yourself scarce,” Cantwell wrote in the exchange. “Give me Vic, it’s your only out.”

The jury found Cantwell guilty of transmitting extortionate communications and threatening to injure property or reputation, according to court records. Jurors acquitted him of a third count, cyberstalking.

Monday’s verdict caps a rocky few years for Cantwell, who moved to Keene years ago as a libertarian “Free Stater” before shifting to the racist ideology that other Free Staters have denounced.

Cantwell rose to national infamy after a Vice News documentary highlighted his role in the Unite the Right rally, which drew neo-Nazis and other white nationalists to Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

Soon after, he was charged in Virginia with using a chemical spray on two counterprotesters during the weekend of the rally. His reaction, in a tearful video he posted online, earned him the nickname “the Crying Nazi” in national media coverage.

Cantwell pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in July 2018 in connection with the Virginia case and returned to Keene soon after.

Meanwhile, he had sued the two people who reported him to police in that case, claiming they were persecuting him for his political beliefs. They counter-sued Cantwell, accusing him of an online harassment campaign that included Cantwell’s posting their photos on his website above song lyrics about “gassing” Jews and transgender people. The competing claims were dropped by mutual agreement in late 2018.

Cantwell remains a defendant in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to hold him and other white nationalist figures accountable for the 2017 Charlottesville violence. In June 2019, Cantwell posted on Telegram about the lead opposing lawyer in the suit, writing that after she “loses this fraudulent lawsuit, we’re going to have a lot of [expletive] fun with her.”

The post prompted Cantwell’s attorneys to ask to stop representing him. A judge later condemned the post but held that it did not quite rise to the level of a criminal threat.

“Cantwell’s repugnant Telegram.com comment comes close to — but does not cross — the line between protected speech and a true threat of physical violence,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe of the Western District of Virginia wrote in a May order.

Days before that Telegram post, Cantwell had initiated the exchange with Lambert that would land him in federal court last week.

Lambert, who said he’s no longer in the Bowl Patrol, testified Wednesday that the group and Cantwell started out on friendly terms. Cantwell helped give them a platform and appeared on the first episode of the group’s “Bowlcast” podcast.

The group took its name from the bowl cut worn by Dylann S. Roof, who murdered nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. In court last week, lawyers presented evidence of the group’s racism, anti-Semitism and casual talk of violence. An FBI agent testified that the group adheres to an “accelerationist” philosophy that endorses violence as a way to bring about a “race war” and societal collapse.

Around late 2018 or early 2019, Lambert said, the Bowl Patrol began to see Cantwell as a sellout and turned on him. Lambert said he and others prank-called Cantwell’s live audio shows. In February 2019, Cantwell reported to the FBI that he suspected Bowl Patrol leader Vic Mackey had defaced his website, according to court testimony.

Lambert said he backed off around the time Cantwell first threatened to post information about him online, that March. But that June, Lambert said, he entered an online chat group called “Peaceful White Folk” not knowing Cantwell ran it.

This prompted the Telegram message exchange in which Cantwell said he would post information about Lambert unless he gave up Vic Mackey’s real identity.

When Lambert refused, Cantwell posted the pictures and the street Lambert lived on in an online chat group with about 300 followers, according to evidence presented in court. He also called a Missouri child-abuse hotline, claiming without evidence that Lambert might be indoctrinating his children in a poisonous ideology.

“People call me a Nazi, and I don’t care,” Cantwell said in the call, according to a recording played in court. “By my standards, I think this guy is dangerous.”

The Missouri authorities did not act on Cantwell’s information.

That summer and fall, Cantwell corresponded with the FBI and sat for a three-hour interview in Keene because he wanted the agency to investigate the Bowl Patrol’s alleged harassment of him, according to evidence presented in court. But the FBI was also looking into his communications with Lambert, which the Bowl Patrol had posted online, catching the eye of an intelligence analyst in Washington, D.C., Special Agent Shayne Tongbua testified.

Federal agents interviewed Lambert in Missouri in October.

A federal grand jury charged Cantwell in January. Federal authorities arrested him at his apartment on South Lincoln Street in Keene. They found 17 guns, a machete and a crossbow in the residence and his car, a Manchester police officer assigned to a federal task force testified at a hearing in February.

The officer said Cantwell could legally possess guns because he was not a convicted felon.

Monday’s verdict changed that.