MANCHESTER — The former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and Vermont’s attorney general say they hope at Burr and Burton Academy students have better judgment than the two legal experts.
John Broderick, the former justice and senior director of external affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and T.J. Donovan, Vermont’s top prosecutor, were at the independent high school Friday to talk about mental health.
“I came here today because I need your help. That’s why I’m at your school,” Broderick said. “I’m on a mission really to change the conversation and the culture around mental illness and take away the shame and the shadows and the stigma that still exists. Your generation can do it. That’s why I’m here.”
John T. Broderick spoke at length about his son, John Christian Broderick, who was 30 when he was charged in 2002 with assaulting his father and sending him to the hospital.
Broderick said it wasn’t until his son was sentenced to serve 7½ to 15 years in prison that the family confronted his son’s severe depression and the younger man’s self-treatment through alcohol.
With his son in prison and himself in the hospital, Broderick said he started to understand the feeling of hopelessness.
“I felt we had failed him. I was, after all, a parent. I should have known something, but I didn’t. I thought all mental illness was hopeless. That’s what I thought. It’s far from hopeless. I know that now,” he said.
The Broderick family has moved past the crisis but Broderick said what happened opened his eyes to the prevalence of mental health needs and the lack of resources.
After his presentation, Broderick said he’s spent almost 40 months traveling about 80,000 miles to reach 440 towns in four states and speak to about 100,000 while visiting about 190 schools.
While he said he didn’t know what to expect when he began, Broderick said he has found that at school after school, students are either suffering from mental illness or affected by it through a relative or friend.
He told students in the E.H. Henry Gym on Friday about being approached after his presentations by young people who ask for a hug and share their stories. Some have never told anyone about what they experienced and others have told him that parents have told them not to ever talk about it, he said.
On Friday, several students at BBA talked to Broderick after the remarks made by him and Donovan, several crying as they talked quietly to him.
BBA Headmaster Mark Tashjian said the presentation was made available to all 750 BBA students. He estimated about 850 people, including teachers and staff, were in the gymnasium.
Afterward, students gathered in their advisories — small groups which meet weekly, each led by a faculty member, according to Kate Leach, director of advancement for Burr and Burton.
Donovan, whom Broderick said was the reason he was able to visit BBA, spoke about mental illness in his own family and how it had gone unaddressed for years.
“The emotion I mostly felt was shame. The best definition of ‘shame’ that I’ve ever heard is that it’s a ‘disease that erodes one’s soul.’ It keeps ticking away. What we have to understand is that when it comes to this issue, that peace comes probably slowly. … What I’m also here to tell you is that since I’ve been talking about it, it’s so much easier to acknowledge it. Not to be ashamed. Not to be embarrassed,” he said.
Donovan said he wasn’t at the school as attorney general but as someone inspired by Broderick.
But he told the students it won’t be he and Broderick who “get this job done.”
“It’s going to be your generation. It’s going to be you. You guys are so much better than us. You’re not divided by the things that divide my generation or John’s generation, and as an elected official, I’ve got to tell you, we listen to your generation. We need you on this one. We need you to lead on this issue that mental illness is a disease and we need to treat it as such, We need to normalize this,” Donovan said.
At the end of his presentation, Broderick addressed the possibility of change and whether the stigma could be removed from the issue of mental illness.
He pointed out that ashtrays were ubiquitous in homes and public places when he grew up and were now almost nowhere to be seen. Breast cancer, on the other hand, was almost never discussed when Broderick was younger, possibly because the word “breast” wasn’t used in polite company but now the disease is one of the most frequent causes for public fundraising efforts.
What are we waiting for? Why are we not changing the results? Too many people have been suffering for too many generations. It makes no sense. It’s not morally right, it’s not medically right. Silence is not the answer,” Broderick said.
More information on mental illness is available on the web at changedirection.org