Changing the Conversation About Mental Health

One in five people in the U.S. has a diagnosable mental health condition and more Americans are expected to die this year by suicide than in car accidents, according to The Change Direction initiative, an organization formed to "change the culture about mental health, mental illness and wellness."

John Broderick is a member of the initiative and came to Brooks' Chapel on Monday to spread the word and share the story of his family's saga with mental health.

With inspiring, and at times heartbreaking honesty, the former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court confessed he knew nothing about mental health issues growing up, so he and his wife "didn't know what mental illness looked like [when] ... it took up residence in my 13-year-old son."

Detailing his son's withdrawal from the world and subsequent descent into alcoholism during college and graduate school — then later losing jobs, moving home with his parents and doing four stints in rehab — the father-of-two said, "He was going backwards at 100 miles-an-hour but he couldn't see it and we couldn't stop it."

When his son ultimately assaulted Broderick in 2002, landing the judge in intensive care for a week and him sentenced to seven-to-15 years in prison, the cycle finally ceased — in a way none of them predicted.

While Broderick's son was in prison, doctors realized that the alcoholic had been self-medicating mental illness. "They told us, he has really serious depression," Broderick shared. "'He has panic attacks and anxiety that are virtually off the charts. If you had those issues, Judge, and you thought it was you, you'd be drinking, too.' It was the only way he found relief [but] it just made his depression worse. It was a black hole getting deeper every day."

After four months in prison — where the son talked with a counselor regularly and began taking medication — he told Broderick his mind wasn't racing anymore and that taking these measures had changed his "whole life."

Broderick proudly revealed its been 15 years since his son last drank alcohol and that three years after entering prison his son was released on parole. "[But he's] not a bad person who's suddenly a good person," the speaker told students. "He's always been a good person. He's now well — and those are very different things. I know that now."

After his talk, Broderick advised a couple of Brooks' student wellness prefects.

Declaring high school students the "least judgmental generation in the history of the United States," Broderick told Brooksians: "I need your help . . . [because] I'm on a mission . . . to change the conversation and the culture around mental illness because we need to . . . and if our country is going to change . . . you're going to do it."

Broderick has been telling his family's story for the past four years to help break the stigma surrounding mental illness. In his talks he also shares the five most common signs of mental illness in hopes of making them as widely known as the signs of other health issues, such as a heart attack or stroke.

Ultimately, what he hopes Brooksians get from his address is that "it is OK not to be OK," he said following Chapel. "It's just not OK to pretend — and I want students who are suffering to feel free to say, 'I need help.' That's it. If enough students do that, the world will begin to change."

Will Page '22, for one, said that he appreciated how Broderick shared his personal experience and advice. The talk made him re-think his view on mental illness because "it made me think about how in the change of a day, anything could happen," Page said. "Like he said, his son said he was fine, but with one day, he wasn't."

Tyler Whitney-Sidney '21 weighed in, too, sharing that he thought Broderick's words were "helpful especially for people our age. We have a lot on our plate most of the time and we don't know how to handle it."

Broderick has spoken to students in more than 220 high schools so far. Hearing him reveal in his remarks how many students come up to him after those talks to share their own struggles made an impact on Racquel Baldeo '21. "That made me realize that mental illness is more common than it may seem," she said.

But thanks to this Chapel talk, and previous Self in Community classes discussing the five signs of mental issues, Baldeo said that she also thinks it's become "more common for us to pay attention to signs in our friends and our family and even in ourselves if we feel a little not like ourselves sometimes."

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