Former chief justice fighting mental illness stigma
Broderick has become spokesman for advocacy group
Broderick has become spokesman for advocacy group
Portsmouth Herald - 9/1/2017
EPPING - Former Chief Justice John Broderick remembers the time his older son, John Christian Broderick, was in Manchester'sValley Street Jail, awaiting trial for assaulting his father. "He told my wife he could see a small portion of the Valley Street cemetery from his cell, and he asked her to come there and just stand for a while every day. "'It's a good distance away,'" Broderick remembers his wife telling him, "'so he can't see me crying.'"
Broderick brought his message on removing the stigma of mental illness to the Epping School District faculty, paraprofessionals and staff on Wednesday. As an ambassador for Change Direction New Hampshire, a national initiative to change the culture of mental health in America, he urged Epping's front-line workers in education to ask the right questions, questions that may save their young charges' lives.
Broderick was invited to Epping by SAU 14 Superintendent of Schools Valerie McKenney. Introducing Broderick to a high school cafeteria crowded with her staff, she said she had heard him speak before and was struck "not by his position or his power, but by his presence as a human being."
She told her staff that mental health was a "heavy topic" and that they could feel free to get up and leave. But no one did.
The Brodericks have two sons, two years apart, and they brought them up the same. But John Christian began to show changes at the age of 13. "That's when mental health problems took up residence in my son," Broderick recalled. John Christian had a few friends, not many, and he didn't want to go to his eighth-grade graduation, his father said. In high school he started smoking and spent more time drawing than on anything else. "But really, he was with-drawing," the senior Broderick said.
While John Christian got adequate grades, he didn't socialize, his father said, and there was not one picture of him among the yearbook candid shots.
John Christian began to drink, drinking his way through high school, college and grad school. "He had jobs and lost them," Broderick said. "My wife and I reached out to the 'alcohol experts,' and they told us we had two choices: put him out until he hit rock bottom, or keep him at home and let him die from drinking." The senior Brodericks chose the tough love approach and asked John Christian to leave.
He did, sleeping in his car and eating at soup kitchens. "I thought, 'I must be the worst father ever,'" Broderick recalled. "And I waited for the phone call no parent wants to get." After two weeks he and Patty "couldn't stand it anymore," he said, and they brought John Christian back home.
John Christian eventually assaulted his father, in a high-profile case. "I went to Elliot Hospital, he went to the Valley Street Jail," his father recalled. After six months the younger Broderick faced trial, and was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in the New Hampshire State Prison.
The assault hurt his father but saved John Christian's life. In prison the head psychiatrist and two social workers met with the senior Brodericks, told them that their son had serious depression, anxiety and panic attacks that were "off the charts," and diagnosed a mental health problem that John Christian was self-medicating with the alcohol. He entered mental health treatment and, 60 days later, told his father, "Dad, I feel so much better. I'm able to sleep, I'm able to focus." Good and beautiful things came next, a wedding performed behind prison walls by his father and a daughter, now nine, doted on by the family. "I always hug her and I think, 'You are a miracle child,'" Broderick said of his granddaughter.
There is still a stigma associated with mental illness, according to Broderick. While walls have come down around diseases such as breast cancer and HIV, mental health problems exist in the shadows.
When John Christian was finally paroled and came home to his family, media trucks were again parked outside the prison. One reporter asked Broderick if he had anything to say.
"I had two things to say," he told the Epping staff. "One, that I was delighted my son had come home. Two, that he was not a 'bad person.' He was a good person with an illness, and now he was well."
The Brodericks went on with their lives, with the former Chief Justice serving as dean of the UNH Law School from 2011 to 2014. He continued to advocate for mental health in an informal way, and about a year ago, he received a phone call from psychiatrist Barbara Van Dahlen. Van Dahlen is on a mission to make the five warning signs of mental illness as well-known as the five warning signs for heart attack and stroke, and she enlisted his help.
Broderick agreed to form a steering committee for the project, called Change Direction New Hampshire, and he reached out to a wide network of friends and colleagues amassed over his career.
The program launched May 23, 2016, in an empty chamber of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. It was a Monday morning, and Broderick envisioned "400 empty seats." But 425 people showed up, including former Governor Maggie Hassan, the entire Congressional delegation, the Episcopal and Catholic bishops for the state, three colleagues from the Supreme Court, and many more.
"I asked them, 'If you've never been touched by a mental illness, either yourself, a friend or relative, raise your hand," he recalled. "Not one of the 425 hands went up."
It happens, he said, in every room he speaks in.
Since May 2016 Broderick has spoken for Change Direction New Hampshire 135 times, 45 of those in high schools, with up to 800 students at a sitting. He's also spoken to the business community and given countless print, television and radio spots.
Mental health issues know no age, race, creed or socioeconomic boundaries, he added. He spoke to a "well-turned-out audience of 250 people" at the Manchester Country Club, and when he asked for a show of hands, every single person had been touched in some way by mental illness.
Opening the windows
"I'm here to ask for your help," Broderick told the Epping teachers. Educators are influential in the lives of children, he said, noting that "I don't remember any of my teachers from college, but I remember every one of my teachers from grade school, junior high and high school. People who work in the public schools are really important," he said.
McKenney told her staff, "I want to connect his words with our mission." The district's mission is to make students college-, career-and life-ready, she said, and mental health plays into that.
"A group of our students heard him speak last year, and they said, 'We have to have him here.' "
Broderick will return to Epping this fall to address the entire student body, she said.
In addition, mental health and its the warning signs will be part of the health curriculum, counseling, and the Life of a Blue Devil program, she said.
Several Epping High School students attended Broderick's talk Wednesday, including sophomore Ava Montalbano. "I've seen friends who are depressed and I also suffer from it," she said. "I feel the stigma to some degree. I'm more comfortable talking to people I know."
Montalbano characterized Broderick's talk as "amazing" and said she was going to check in with her friends more often. "I'm going to find out what's going on in their lives, if they're OK," she said.
Abby Simard, a junior, suffers from a mental illness condition that manifests itself physically. "Last year was a rough year," she said. "Kids mocked me. Some of them thought I was doing it for attention."
Simard suggested that both students and adults be considerate if they suspect a mental health issue, and ask the person if they need help.
She enjoyed Broderick's presentation, she said, noting that the personal story made it relatable. "It wasn't just a PowerPoint," Simard said.
As for Broderick, he'll continue to spread his message and look for a public face to represent the issue. "Magic Johnson got up and said he had HIV, and he removed a lot of the stigma," Broderick said, adding, "We need a 'Magic Johnson' moment."
For more information, to learn the Five Signs of Emotional Suffering or to schedule an appearance by Broderick, visit www.changedirection.org/nh.