Gov. Chris Sununu champions suicide prevention in inaugural speech 

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Martha Dickey of Boscawen records Gov. Chris Sununu with her phone during his inauguration speech on Thursday at the State House in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mount Prospect School teacher John Mozley listens from the gallery. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Martha Dickey was mentioned by Gov. Chris Sununu during his inauguration speech at the State House on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Martha Dickey wears two bracelets every day for 19-year-old son Jason Dickey, who died by suicide in Sept. 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ann Podlipny (right) of the Immigrant Solidarity Network, advocates for a state minimum wage ahead of Gov. Chris Sununu’s inaugural address. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

Published: 1/3/2019 5:57:06 PM

Martha Dickey could not stop fidgeting with the teal and purple bracelet on her wrist as she listened to the governor talk about her son.

The rubber bracelet – marked with suicide awareness colors – has been present on Dickey’s arm every day since her son Jason took his life in September 2017.

“I felt like he was there with me; I got goosebumps, honestly,” she said, as she stepped out of the gallery of Representatives Hall, cheeks flushed. “It means so much to keep his memory out there.”

Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday announced his support for legislation Dickey has championed that would require teachers to undergo two hours of mandatory youth suicide awareness and prevention training a year. It was one of many proposals in the governor’s inaugural address, which served as an outline for his second term.

“We must understand that suicide is preventable, and it starts with us,” Sununu said to a crowd of hundreds of legislators, commissioners, public officials and guests.

The suicide prevention legislation, called the Jason Flatt Act, was brought to Sununu by Dickey and her husband, Paul, of Boscawen last year. It is named after Jason Flatt, who died in 1997 in Tennessee, and has been passed in more than 20 states since then – and fully funded by the Jason Foundation, led by Jason Flatt’s father, Clark Flatt.

Jason Dickey was 19 years old when he took his own life, but Dickey said her son might have had a better chance if those around him had been more educated about warning signs while he was still in high school.

“Perhaps if schools were more engaged and involved with mental health, warning signs would have been more clear,” she said. “They spend so much time with our kids, and if they’re able to be trained and be aware of some of the warning signs, they can act as a buffer in between the kids and the parents.”

The year Jason died, 2017, had more teen suicides than New Hampshire had seen in two decades.

“This law won’t bring him back, but I think we can help other kids,” Dickey said.

Assessing the speech

The hour-long speech, considered a benchmark for the year, brought out citizens of all political stripes and touched on a variety of topics.

Sununu broadly outlined his second-term agenda, highlighting his hopes to lower taxes, revamp the mental health system, invest in low-income renewable energy projects, move psychiatric care out of the state prison, and improve the state’s foster care system. 

Matt Benelli of Newfields found more than a few things to like in the governor’s remarks.

“I thought it was incredibly bipartisan bringing people together,” he said. “You couldn’t tell whether he was a Democrat or a Republican in terms of anything other than the policies he’s proposing.”

He pointed to Sununu’s business policies – tax cuts, regulatory reductions – as actions that have directly benefited him.

“I run a sales and training consulting organization,” he said. “I have a small business in the state of New Hampshire. My wife has a business, she runs a yoga business. So the investment that they’re making to make it a business-friendly state to do business here, to add jobs here, to give people opportunities here . . . continues to speak loudly for me and my family.”

Sununu certainly found time to talk about his legislative accomplishments from his first term, including a round of business tax cuts and a new “hub and spoke” opioid treatment system that rolled out this week. 

Voices for a higher minimum wage

One thing Sununu did not address in his speech was an increase to the state minimum wage, a proposal he has opposed in the past.

Outside the governor’s office, a line of demonstrators waved signs in favor of boosting the minimum wage, currently pegged to the federal $7.25 per hour minimum.

Viola Katusiime, a member of the Granite State Organizing Project, said she’s met many people in minority communities throughout the state who live with the consequences of low wages.

“They’re working two or three jobs, some people that I know in the communities that I work in,” she said. “They can’t put food on the table, they can’t pay rent, and that’s wrong.”

Ann Podlipny agreed. An affiliate with the Immigrant Solidarity Network, Podlipny said she works with Nepalese workers across the state, including some employed in the State House cleaning services.

“Many, many people who I work with need two jobs and still it’s very difficult to make ends meet,” she said. “If there’s one issue, like a car breaking down or something like that, it just puts them out of commission.”

Civics, friendship, curiosity

The speech wasn’t all about politics for everyone.

A few people in the third-floor gallery showed up out of friendship. “I think he’s genuinely doing what he thinks is right for the state, and I think he’s doing a great job,” said Elliot Berkowitz who has been friends with Sununu for about seven years.

Gavin Nagey and Reed Cash came because they attend school with Sununu’s son, Calvin.

“We don’t talk about politics,” Nagey said. “His dad’s the governor, but (we talk about) social stuff.”

For others, it was educational. Hilary Rheaume of Bow treated her stepson to his first visit to the State House for the speech. And John Mozley, an English teacher at Plymouth’s Mount Prospect Academy, brought two students as part of civics curriculum.

“It’s part of our experiential learning program,” Mozley said.  “Just to be part of the civics process.”

Then there was Eibert Strobend and Sophie Sanborn – pen pals from separate continents. Strobend, from the Netherlands, and Sanborn, from Ashland, met through a pen pal website, bonding over a shared interest in history.

After meeting in person this week, the two had come for a tour of the oldest continuously operated legislature in the country. There just happened to be a speech taking place.

“It was definitely an experience,” Sanborn said. “That’s for sure.”

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