Kelly Untiet of the Office of Student Wellness at the New Hampshire Department of Education, along with former Supreme Court Justice John Broderick, discuss ways Gilford High School students can help people with mental illness. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — Former Supreme Court Justice John Broderick, making the 218th stop on his Change Direction mental health awareness campaign, praised members of Gilford High School’s student NAMI group for their peer support efforts.
Kelly Untiet, the communications specialist with the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Office of Student Wellbeing, who accompanied Broderick to Gilford on Monday morning, told the students that their program was much more advanced than what most other schools are offering.
For their part, the students said the training they received through the National Alliance on Mental Illness and their efforts to inform people about the ways of recognizing mental health issues have led students to approach them about problems they or their friends were experiencing.
Gilford’s student assistance counselor, Laurie Belanger, said the students receive their training in wellness classes as freshmen and then NAMI members in pairs or threes spend 70 minutes every few weeks, passing information along to their peers or to students in the middle school.
The program began six years ago when the first students received the training through a federal grant. Because it was the only evidence-based training program out there, the funding kept coming in, and Belanger said they trained every staff member, along with coaches and parents, five years ago.
The parents were supportive, according to the students, and they said their peers found it easier to talk to them than to the adults around them. Some students were shy and uncomfortable at first, but then they relaxed and opened up about their problems.
The training teaches people to recognize the five signs of mental illness, to express concern and offer support, to act immediately by talking to someone who is trusted, to care enough to follow up, and to text the signs to agencies that can help — or REACT.
One student said they came away from the training with binders of information and suggestions on how to pass the information along, but they came up with their own way of approaching it.
When Broderick suggested that the program should be repeated when the students get to the higher grades, he learned that Gilford also offers yoga and mindfulness exercises to help students find ways of dealing with stress.
Broderick observed, “Making yourself vulnerable is really a strength,” and said their generation is more open than his, where everyone danced around the issue of mental illness.
Later, during an all-school assembly, Broderick told his personal story about how mental illness entered his home undetected.
Growing up, he said, everyone shunned those suffering from mental illness and he recalled that, when he was 10, a friend’s father came home from “the nuthouse” as the mental hospital was known, and he was afraid to cross the street to speak to his friend.
As an adult, he didn’t recognize what was happening as his son, Christian, began withdrawing and smoking and, later, drinking. He and his wife recognized that Christian had a drinking problem, but not the underlying cause.
After ordering him out of the house for three weeks in the hope that the experience would force Christian to turn his life around, they recognized it wasn’t working and let him come home.
Broderick had no memory of his son attacking him so viciously that he ended up in intensive care for a week, and Christian ended up in jail for six months before being sentenced to the state prison.
While he was incarcerated, the family met together in the secure psychiatric unit to discuss what the chief psychologist recognized: Christian was mentally ill.
Once he was placed on medication and given counseling, Christian said he felt better than he had since he was a child. He married while in prison and is now back out and living a normal life.
“He’s a good person and I love him,” Broderick said.
Then he asked, “Why am I here today?”
He said that, after his family’s experience was spread through newspapers around the country, he began hearing from other people, and “everyone had a mental health story.”
Barbara Van Dahlen contacted him about helping to launch a new program, Change Direction, in New Hampshire. It would a first in the nation: a program spreading the word about how to recognize mental illness.
“With my visit today,” Broderick said, “I have spoken 218 times, to 40,000 people.”
He encouraged the students to pay attention and reach out to those who seem to be alone and unhappy.
He offered two examples from his youth to explain how change can happen. Growing up, everywhere he went, there was an ashtray. Today, there are none. Growing up, watching the civil rights demonstrations on his black-and-white television, he couldn’t imagine an African-American president. Then Barack Obama won two terms as president.
“If we can eliminate ashtrays and elect an African-American president, we can learn the five most common signs of mental illness,” he said.
“Your generation is different. You’re impatient for progress, and I respect that. My generation had a chance and didn’t do it. Your generation needs to.”
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.
Former Supreme Court Justice John Broderick, left, discusses the work of Gilford High School students who are doing peer counseling for mental illness. (Tom Caldwell/Laconia Daily Sun)