Recognizing the signs of mental illness
John Broderick leading public awareness campaign in NH
Portsmouth Herald - 9/24/2017
PORTSMOUTH - Change Direction is a national campaign with the goal of changing the public's understanding of mental illness.
In New Hampshire, John Broderick is the face of the campaign. As a survivor of a brutal attack by his own son in 2002, Broderick has spent a long time learning about mental illness and helping his son, Christian.
"I love my son and I don't want anyone to think he is a bad person," said Broderick, in a very candid interview. "He is not a bad person and he never was. He was ill."
Broderick, who in 2010 retired as chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, said he wishes he knew then what he knows now. Currently he is working at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center as senior director for public affairs.
The Change Direction campaign is an effort to better educate people about mental illness, and its warning signs. There are five signs the campaign stresses as warnings of a potential mental health issue.
1. Are you feeling agitated?
2. Are you properly caring for yourself?
3. Are you withdrawn?
4. Are you not feeling like yourself?
5. Are you feeling helpless?
Recognizing the signs means knowing when it is time to seek help. It means not shrugging them off as something like teen angst.
"I grew up in a world where everyone had 'great' mental health," said Broderick. "Only your family had challenges, because no one else talked about it. I knew nothing about mental health except that it would never affect my family."
In fact, Broderick said the only time he ever heard about mental health was when it was an extreme, when true insanity was involved.
"My sons were 13 and 11, and my 13-year-old was afflicted with a mental health disorder and I didn't know," he said.
Broderick learned that one-half of people with a mental health disorder are affected by the time they are 13, and two-thirds by the time they are 24.
"I didn't know," he said. "I never considered his behavior the result of mental health. We just figured that was the way he was. Both of my children had great childhoods. They spent summers on the Cape. My 13-year-old was quite the artist and spent a lot of time drawing in his room. I didn't know he was withdrawing. We thought - he's an artist and they march to a different drum."
Christian had friends in high school. When he told his father that every day he went to school his palms would perspire, Broderick chalked it up to nerves and felt his son was shy.
High school pictures are common, in yearbooks at dances. Broderick said his son was in none of them. He started smoking cigarettes in high school.
"He went to college and started drinking and he always appeared disheveled," said Broderick.
"His friends began telling me they were worried that he was drinking too much. He told me he drank no more than anyone else and I believed him."
When his son entered graduate school in Boston, Broderick said he did well in school. When it came time to get a job, he could not hold one.
"We sent him to an alcohol counselor because the thought was that he was an alcoholic," said Broderick. "The alcohol people said he was an alcoholic. My son said he was not and he was right."
What was happening was that Broderick's son was using alcohol to self-medicate because he was feeling so bad, so lost. He had a mental health issue.
"He never was an alcoholic," said Broderick. "But he would go to treatment and then start drinking again. We were advised to put him out on the street and stop enabling him. We did and it was the worst thing we could have done. We thought it was tough love."
Christian didn't know he had mental health issues either and now he was on his own. He lived on the streets and in shelters, always drinking.
"Then we got the call no parents want to get, and we went and retrieved him," said Broderick. "He was traumatized and thought we would put him out again. He assaulted me one night while I was asleep."
Broderick was hit repeatedly in the face with a guitar and suffered numerous broken bones in his face. Surgery was required to repair the damage. Christian was arrested.
"My master's level son ended up in Valley Street Jail (Manchester)," said Broderick. "His counselor said he had serious depression and his anxiety level was off the charts. We cried and realized we had failed him. He needed help. We always loved him, always knew he was a wonderful man. We just didn't know how to help him."
"Our worst day was realizing our son had a mental illness. He was in jail for 60-90 days and we visited two times a week. He was finally being treated and said he felt so different. He said he had no idea he could ever feel this way. He was sleeping and he was better able to focus."
Broderick offered to step down from the court, but his son didn't want him to do that. Instead he worked on getting better.
"He got married and I performed the ceremony," said Broderick. "They have a beautiful 8-year-old child, a miracle. He shows no more signs of mental health problems and they are happy. My son is a wonderful person. He was always a wonderful person. He was just not well."
When the Change Direction campaign came along, Broderick said it made perfect sense to him.
"You look for the five signs, just as we look for signs when a person is having a heart attack or a stroke," said Broderick. "We know the signs of a heart attack. Why don't we know the signs of mental illness?"
As part of the campaign, Broderick and co-chair Peter Evers travel to schools and civic organizations and give talks.
"One thing they all have in common is that I ask if they know of someone affected by mental illness," said Broderick. "Pretty much everyone raises their hands or stands because it is so prevalent. If we ask if there is anyone who has not been affected, no one raises their hand."
Broderick said when he speaks at schools, he is almost always approached by a student who has concerns. He said he tries to point them in the right direction.
"More people die by suicide than by automobile accidents," said Broderick. "My son is proud of me for doing this. I think this is the most important thing I have ever done in my life. If my story had been below the radar and not so public, I might not be here. People come up to me all the time to ask how we, as a family, are doing now. We are doing great and I want to help others see how important this is, recognizing mental health and not stigmatizing it ever again. I want everyone to know that it's OK to get help, that's it is vital to get help and that they are not alone."
To learn more, visit http://www.changedirection.org/nh/.