Former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick spoke to students about mental illness at Prospect Mountain High School yesterday. (Alan MacRae/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
Broderick, Edelblut work to end stigma of mental illness
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
ALTON — They may be political opposites, but John Broderick and Frank Edelblut are united in their commitment to ending the stigma of mental illness.
The former New Hampshire Supreme Court justice and the state’s new education commissioner made a joint appearance Thursday at Prospect Mountain High School to talk about mental illness and the signs that someone needs help.
“This is the most important thing I’ve done in my professional life,” said Broderick in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Broderick was the victim in a high-profile domestic abuse case when, in April 2002, his son, Christian, attacked him with a guitar as he slept, causing facial injuries that required months of recovery. While serving time in the New Hampshire State Prison, Christian was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder — symptoms of mental illness that had been ignored since he was about 13 years old.
“At that point, I knew, in many ways, I’d failed him,” Broderick said.
He said he always assumed that Christian’s problem was due to alcohol, not that the alcohol was Christian’s way to self-medicate.
“I’m a baby boomer,” Broderick said, “and we didn’t do well on mental illness. I grew up in a town of 22,000 people and they all had perfect mental health and every marriage was happy. That’s what I thought.”
He compared today’s reaction to mental health with the way people used to deal with cancer. If mentioned at all, it was “the C word” and in the case of breast cancer, he said, “The only adult I ever heard say the word ‘breast’ was Hugh Hefner.”
When the AIDS epidemic hit, Broderick said, “No one knew about it, and then Magic Johnson spoke up.
“Every illness should be treated with empathy and understanding, but mental illness and illnesses of the brain are not treated that way. Why do we not talk about it very much?”
That is Broderick’s goal in traveling the state on behalf of Change Direction New Hampshire, an effort by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the state Department of Education to teach students to recognize the five signs of mental illness: personality changes, uncharacteristic anger or anxiety, withdrawal or isolation, self-neglect or risky behavior, and hopelessness.
Broderick, now serving as senior director of public affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said the touring campaign aims to make those signs of mental illness as well known as the signs of heart attack or stroke.
As daunting as the task may be, Broderick used another example from his past to illustrate what a difference education on health issues can make. When he was a child, he said, “everyone smoked” and ashtrays were everywhere.
“Can you find an ashtray today? Back then, we wouldn’t have expected ashtrays to disappear. Like rabbit ears for TVs or test patterns, they’re gone. If you smoke outside today, it violates a city ordinance.”
Broderick said the Change Direction program originated with child psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen, whom Time Magazine named as one of the 100 most influential people in 2012. She had created a program called Give An Hour which had mental health professionals donating one free hour a week to counsel veterans and their families. Today, the program has 7,000 volunteers involved.
After receiving Time’s recognition, Van Dahlen decided to change the culture that surrounds mental illness, seeking to end the stigma.
“Because my own family went through that and knows what hopelessness looks like, I was asked to call her,” Broderick recalled.
Van Dahlen asked him to serve on a steering committee to get the project going in New Hampshire — the first state in the nation to do so — and Broderick said the initial goal was to raise $150,000 in funding.
“Everybody I spoke with said yes,” he recalled. “We raised the money in no time.”
Since the program was launched at the State House in May 2016, people have contributed an additional $185,000, Broderick said.
The program’s launch in the House Chambers attracted 425 civic leaders, educators, mayors, a Catholic bishop, and members of the congressional delegation.
“It was the most impressive room I’ve been in in four decades,” Broderick said of the kickoff event.
He said he was shocked when Van Dahlen asked those attending to raise their hands if they and their families had not been touched in some way by mental illness, and no one raised a hand. Van Dahlen later told him that happens wherever she goes.
“It’s a health crisis in America, but people are so ashamed of mental health they don’t talk about it,” Broderick said.
One of the first schools Broderick visited was Pembroke Academy and he said he was unsure how his talk would be received by the students.
“It was a warm fall morning and it was held in the gym,” he said. “There were 840 students on bleachers at either end of the room, and I’m at one end. I spoke for 35 minutes, and told stories of my own ignorance and bad decisions I had made. As I wound down, I said my generation had failed, but you’re the least judgmental in the history of the United States, and can make a difference. I wondered if they’d even heard me. When I was done, the principal was standing at my right, and a second or two passed, but it felt like an hour. Then 840 kids stood up and applauded for almost a minute.
“What I said was it’s OK, it’s not your fault, and there’s no shame (in mental illness). You didn’t ask for it, don’t deserve it, but what did we do? We stigmatized them.”
He said, “After I spoke that day, kids would come up to me in the gym with their eyes wet and cracking voices and say, ‘Thanks for talking about this,’ and sharing their own stories. One girl asked if she could give me a hug — and that happens in every school.”
Broderick praised Edelblut for wanting to offer students that opportunity to learn about the signs of mental illness.
“Frank Edelblut was the first education commissioner to go to high schools for mental health awareness,” he said. “His politics and mine are not the same, but so what? What he’s doing is great.”
He had similar praise for Attorney General Gordon MacDonald who agreed to accompany Broderick in a high school visit. “He’s a conservative Republican and I’m not, but I don’t care,” he said.
For Broderick, the campaign is a family mission.
“If my family’s story had not been out in all of the papers, I probably wouldn’t have been in this program,” he said. “But my son said, ‘I’m so proud of what you’re doing. There are kids out there today who are suffering, and I wouldn’t have the courage to come up to you, but I wish I had known of those five signs. I know what hopelessness is and what public hopelessness is, but I’m through it now.'”
Through medication, Christian Broderick has regained his life.
“He came out one night and gave us a hug and said, ‘I feel so different now. I can sleep, I can focus and don’t have those feelings.’”
While Christian was in prison, he got married, with his father performing the ceremony off the main visiting room during visiting hours. Christian’s wife was working at Dartmouth College when they got married, and today they have a 9-year-old daughter.
“My wife and I were very ignorant about mental illness,” Broderick said, “and we’re not ignorant now. I wasn’t smart enough to create this campaign, but I’m smart enough to see how good it is.”
He said that, since May 2016, he has spoken 160 times at 50 high schools, reaching 23,000 people and traveling 22,000 miles.
“Now I see the genius of the campaign,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody with mental illness. If you help one person, you help everybody that knows them.”
The five signs:
• A change in personality. Someone is acting like a very different person, or not acting or feeling like themselves.
• Uncharacteristic anxiety, anger or moodiness.
• Social withdrawal and isolation.
• Lack of self-care or risky behaviors.
• A sense of hopelessness or feeling overwhelmed.
See more at www.changedirection.org.