HOOKSETT -- For most people, a 15-year term of service on the New Hampshire Supreme Court would represent the pinnacle of a lifetime of hard work. But former chief justice John Broderick is not most people.
In a keynote address to a room full of parents at a school safety forum at Cawley Middle School, Broderick told the story of how his son’s struggles with mental illness led the Granite State’s former top judge to dedicate the rest of his life to destigmatizing conversations about mental health.
“This is the most important thing I have done in my entire professional life, and I do not say that lightly,” said Broderick.
While Broderick says he and his wife, Patricia, were unsettled by their oldest son Christian’s tendency to hole himself up in his room when he was a teenager, it wasn’t until Christian went off to college and began to drink heavily that the couple became concerned.
Broderick said Christian’s heavy drinking only continued when he moved back in with his parents to attend graduate school.
Although Christian earned his master’s, Broderick said his son’s drinking resulted in the loss of two jobs.
“I kept thinking that we must have failed him somehow,” said Broderick. “His younger brother had gotten his master's degree, gotten married and was moving ahead. But my oldest son, smart, funny and talented, he was going backwards at a 100 miles per hour and he couldn’t see it and we couldn't stop it.”
After multiple failures to get clean in rehab, Broderick said he and his wife made the difficult decision to kick Christian out of the house, believing all the while that alcoholism was the only problem their son faced.
“Up to this point, no doctor, no neighbor, no friends, no family members, no one ever said ‘Do you think your son could have a mental health problem?’ I never even thought of that,” he said.
Christian lived on the streets of Manchester for three weeks before his mother and father agreed to take him back in. But the return ended in tragedy one night in 2002 when Christian beat his father to within an inch of his life with a guitar, an event that made headlines across the county while Broderick slipped in and out of consciousness in the ICU.
Broderick believed fear of being kicked out again and trauma brought on from his son’s first time on the street were the motivations behind the attack, but that didn’t stop a judge from sentencing Christian to 15 years in prison alongside the very same inmates that Broderick spent his day job reviewing the appeals of.
“I wasn’t really popular at the prison,” said Broderick. “If that was your son, you’d lie awake at night, too.”
Christian was paroled after three years, but incarceration allowed prison psychiatrists to diagnose him with serious depression, as well as chronic anxiety and panic attacks that Broderick says were “almost off the charts.”
Thanks to therapy and medication, today Christian is sober and married with a young daughter. But the turnaround hasn’t stopped Broderick, who now serves as the senior director of external affairs at Dartmouth Hitchcock, from partnering with his employer to make amends for what he sees as his failure to see his son’s mental illness for what it was.
Heading up Darmouth’s R.E.A.C.T. Mental Health Awareness Campaign, Broderick has spent the last 31 months holding about 338 speaking engagements to “change the culture and the way mental health is viewed,” and equip young people, who Broderick believes will be the driving force behind his movement, with the tools to recognize, talk about and respond to signs of mental illness.
He went on to compare the cultural shift around mental illness to the evolution of thought around smoking and civil rights since the time of his own youth.
“Don’t tell me culture can’t change,” he said. “If we can eliminate ashtrays from the world I grew up in, if we can elect Barack Obama to the White House when my childhood memories where racism was often tolerated and sometimes applauded, we can learn the five basic signs of mental illness.”
Jennifer Macpherson, whose two children are in seventh and eighth grade at Cawley, says that the mental health concerns that Broderick discussed are never far from her mind, but agreed with his take that kids in her children’s generation are well positioned to start changing the dialogue.
“My kids are super open about it,” she said in reference to mental illness. “It was completely different 30 years ago when I was in school, but I think it’s amazing that they talk about this stuff with their friends, and that they’re OK saying that they aren’t feeling quite themselves that day. I think it’s awesome.”