By Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — Former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court John Broderick believes he’s found his calling in life.
After more than four decades in the judicial system, Broderick, 70, has for the past year and a half served as an ambassador for Change Direction New Hampshire, a national initiative to change the culture of mental health in America.
“It’s the most rewarding work I've done in my professional life and may be the most important work I have ever done,” Broderick said during a phone interview Wednesday.
Broderick, who served as associate justice of the court from 1995-2004 and chief justice from 2004-10, will be keynote speaker this morning at the 104th annual N.H. PTA Convention, which kicked off Friday at the Red Jacket Mountain View resort in North Conway.
Broderick is also past president of the University of New Hampshire Law School.
According to Dan Ryan, director of public affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and a 1990 Kennett High graduate, “Justice Broderick, now senior director of public affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, has been speaking to high school and college students as part of Change Direction New Hampshire since 2016, bringing awareness to the 5 Signs.
As part of that effort, he said, "Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the Department of Education are starting the conversation in schools with REACT — an awareness initiative that details ways to respond when students recognize the five signs of mental illness.”
The signs, according to Broderick, are personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-esteem and hopelessness.
Broderick said that a stigma is still associated with mental illness. While walls have come down around diseases such as AIDS and diabetes, mental health problems exist in the shadows.
“If someone had diabetes, you wouldn’t say, ‘Snap out of it.’" Likewise, he said mental illness "isn’t a choice, it’s a condition. No. 1, they didn’t ask for it, and No. 2, they don’t deserve it. What I’m trying to do is increase awareness.”
Change Direction has turned into a national campaign, with Broderick among the driving forces behind the movement.
“It started in May 2016 as a non-partisan, non-political awareness campaign,” said Broderick explained.
While the initiative was set to be unveiled in the New Hampshire State House, "the House wasn’t in session, and my fear is we’d get maybe 10 people,” he said. “I had no idea how people would react.
"Incredibly, 425 people showed up, including the Catholic bishop. It was the most impressive room I’d ever been in in my four decades in public service."
There were attorneys, mayors, business leaders, political figures and families.
“What stunned me that day was when Barbara Van Dahlen (clinical psychologist, named one of Time Magazine's most influential people) asked if anyone in the chamber who had not been touched by mental illness would raise their hand. Not one hand went up. I asked her how often she gets that response. She said all the time.”
Broderick noted that half of all mental illness in Americans arises by the age of 14. Two-thirds appears by age 23.
“Last year,” he said, “more people died from suicide than by car accident.”
Broderick has had mental illness affect him personally. In 2002, at the age of 30, his son, John Christian, assaulted him while he was asleep in their Manchester home, beating him with a guitar.
“I went to Elliot Hospital, he went to the Valley Street Jail,” Broderick recalled.
A trial ensued with John Christian aentenced to 3 1/2 years in state prison.
“My son had depression,” Broderick said. “I wouldn’t talk about this if not for John Christian and our family saying we need to.”
Broderick said the family tried “tough love” when his son was drinking and self-medicating. They weren’t aware of the signs of anxiety, panic attacks and depression. It was in prison that John Christian’s life began to turn around. He entered a mental treatment program.
Broderick noticed a difference in his son and that “led to good thing.”
“My son married in prison, and I performed the wedding,” he said.
Broderick now has a 9-year-old granddaughter he obviously dotes on.
"I know what hopelessness looks like, and I know what hope looks like," he said. "I was ignorant (in 2002). I’m not ignorant anymore. We came through it.”
Since May of 2016, Broderick has spoken at 160 venues across New Hampshire.
“I have not invited myself to a single place,” he said. “I’ll go wherever I’m asked. I really appreciate any invitation from a high school. I’ve spoken at 50 high schools in the past year. One of the first was at Pembroke Academy (in Concord).
"I spoke to 840 students at 9 a.m. in their gym while they sat on the hard bleachers. I tell stories for about 35 minutes, but I wondered towards the end if they had heard what I was saying. I stopped. A second or a minute went by, and 840 kids stood up and applauded for almost a minute. They were applauding the message.”
Broderick said many students came up to him afterward with tears in their eyes.
“They thanked me for coming and talking,” he said. “One girl from Dublin asked, 'Can I ask for a favor? Can I give you a hug?'” he said.
Broderick appreciates today’s teens.
“I say to kids, my generation failed on mental health. Your generation is the least judgmental. If I could speak at a different school every day I would. I want to start a conversation. Young people will change (the stigma) — older people need to facilitate the change.”
It’s important to offer a helping hand, he said, if you see a sign.
“We’ve been taught (with mental illness) to leave the person alone,” Broderick said, “but if we saw a person limping at the mall, we’d go over and say something. Let’s stop marginalizing mental illness.”
To learn more about the Change Direction initiative, go to changedirection.org.