Broderick Calls Attention to the Need for Greater Mental Health Awareness and Infrastructure

On February 16, 2022, the Rockefeller Center welcomed former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, John Broderick, Jr, for a public lecture titled "Changing the Conversation Around Mental Health—It's Way Past Time." Hosted by Rockefeller Center Policy Fellow and Assistant Professor of Government Herschel Nachlis, the lecture was delivered in honor of Brice Acree '09, a "political science professor, husband, father, friend, and community member" who passed away in 2019.

While Broderick has spent years in a variety of important positions – first as Chief Justice of the NH Supreme Court and now as Senior Director of Public Affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center—the "most important thing [he's] ever done", he noted, is the one he holds now as an advocate for shifting the culture around mental health discussion and policy. Over the past four years, Broderick has traveled 85,000 miles, visited four states, and talked to over 110,000 people—predominantly 7-12th graders—about identifying mental health problems and identifying resources. "I've hugged hundreds and hundreds of kids with wet eyes or cracking voices who confide in me, someone they don't know and will never see again, merely because they know I won't judge them or shame them or blame them," Broderick explained. "It's not right how we treat mental illness; half of the kids that talk to me, or confide in me, are getting no help at all."

Broderick's advocacy is not only informed by his interactions with today's young people, but also by his own family in navigating his eldest son's mental health struggles and subsequent alcohol abuse. In retrospect, Broderick explained, he saw his son battle with his mental health as early as 13 years old, when he became extremely "withdrawn" and wasn't interested in events or friendships like his peers. When his son began college in New York, he began drinking heavily in social circles, to the point where "his friends would seek us out, my wife and I, to express their concerns about his drinking." Broderick's son would continually deny the presence of a drinking problem; at the same time, he was drinking every day even while living at home.

In consultation with alcohol experts, Broderick and his wife were advised to either kick his son out of their house and "hope he hits bottom" or risk having him "die drinking in your house". Unsatisfied with these ultimatums, Broderick and his wife sent their son to several rehabilitation centers, to no avail. One night, Broderick was physically assaulted by his son; though he has no recollection of the event, he vividly recalled the days he was forced to spend in the hospital afterwards as well as the devastating nature of the legal ramifications his son faced for his actions. Watching his son being sentenced to jail time, Broderick noted, was a particularly excruciating experience. "I hope you don't have that day in your life…I would bet you anything I owned, or might ever do or accomplish… that could never have been my family." It was not until his son was in jail that Broderick learned his son was actually using alcohol to "self-medicate" his serious depression, panic attacks, and "off the charts" anxiety.

While Broderick's son has now been sober for over fifteen years, Broderick noted that he only began speaking about his family's experiences and the need for greater mental health awareness in the past five years. As a self-professed "baby-boomer," Broderick found mental health to be heavily stigmatized in as a child in his community. "I felt pretty confident, even as a kid, in knowing that I'd never know anyone or see anyone the rest of my life who had a mental health problem," he believed. Even as an adult, he explained, "I thought [finding solutions to] all mental illness was hopeless. It's far from hopeless; I know that now."

Today, Broderick explains, mental illness is a pervasive issue with treatment options that are highly under-resourced; half of all mental illness in the U.S. begins by age 14, and two-thirds by age 23. Not only are conversations regarding mental health in communities lacking, but there is also not enough mental health infrastructure nationwide. "We do not have a mental health system in this country; we have some great and talented people in mental health, but we don't have a system," Broderick emphasized. "If [someone] broke their leg, they'd call 911. If you have a young child with a mental health problem, who do you call? How long would you wait?"

To begin to build a stronger foundation for mental health treatment and awareness, Broderick explained that "we need to learn the five basic signs of mental illness… we need to talk about it, we need to normalize it, we need to reach out, we need to react to what we should see." In order to see these changes through, however, Broderick emphasized the need for young people to stand up and advocate for the changes they believe to be necessary as well. "I love your generation," he said, noting that today's youth are the "least judgmental Americans in the history of this country" for their openness and willingness to discuss mental health issues. "Young people need to be impatient and vocal," advised Broderick, not only to open discussions on mental health but fight to install institutions that will support mental healthcare. "So many kids are relying on us—and adults too, by the way."