Broderick: New attitude needed when dealing with mental health

John T. Broderick,Jr., left, Former Chief Justice of the N.H. Supreme Court, and Brian Bagley, principal of Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative Middle-Junior High School, in the gym following Broderick’s moving speech on improving attitudes toward mental illness.

WILTON – John T. Broderick Jr., former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, is on a mission to change the culture and people’s attitudes surrounding mental illness.

“When I was growing up,” he told the students at the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative High School on Thursday, “no one talked about mental illness. The mentally ill were hidden away, shamed. We called institutions for the mentally ill ‘nut houses.’ It wasn’t fair, but we did it.”

Speaking movingly, emotionally, Broderick related the story of his older son who suffered from depression and severe panic attacks. He was untreated, Broderick said, “because we didn’t know.” The boy was withdrawn and in denial, and as he progressed through college, he became an alcoholic, using alcohol to self-treat his problems.

“We saw the alcohol,” Broderick said. “We didn’t see his problem.”

Eventually, the son erupted, physically attacked his father, severely injuring him.

It was at the Valley Street Jail and state prison where the young man was finally diagnosed and treated, medication found for him.

That isn’t where people should get help, but where most people are getting it, Broderick said. There are too few beds and too few services for the afflicted.

“You are the least judgmental generation ever, and I need your help,” he said. “I’m on a mission to change the culture around mental illness. We need to raise awareness. There are a lot of families that are suffering.”

Half of all mental illness arises by age 14, he said, “and 2/3 by age 23. More than 43,000 people took their lives last year, and it is a growing problem among veterans, men and women. But we don’t talk about it. You need to force the discussion. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for a friend or your family. Find somebody you can trust.”

Statistically, he added, “there are some of you here who are suffering.”

He said, “It’s OK to have heart problems or a stroke, so it’s OK to have a mental health problem. We can’t put it into the shadows. We can’t ignore it. There is no shame to it.”

The culture can be changed, he said. When he was young, every restaurant table had an ashtray or two. Every car had an ash tray. “There were ash trays in my house, even in the bathrooms. How many of you have seen an ashtray?”

Years ago, he said, “no one talked about cancer. No one said the word breast. Women died and we didn’t know why. Wearing pink would have been impossible.”

Thinking about HIV changed, too, when Magic Johnson stood up one day in 1991 and said he had been infected. People went out and tried to find a cure. What mental health needs is a Magic Johnson moment. You can change the culture. If we could get rid of the ash trays and elect an African-American president” you can change this, too. “I have confidence in your generation and it will pay dividends.”

Broderick was given a standing ovation and several students stopped to talk with him.

Broderick served 15 years on the state Supreme Court. He is now Senior Director of Public Affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. He was asked to take on the mental health issue by BarbaraVan Dahlen, a psychologist in Maryland. He has visited about 70 high schools over the past 19 months, he said. “This program is non-political and non-partisan.”

The program was arranged by Guidance Counselor Amanda Kovaliv.