Former Supreme Court Judge Raises Awareness of Mental Illness for Youth

Oct 25, 2017

Retired N.H. Supreme Court Chief Justice John T. Broderick.

Fifteen years ago, former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick was attacked by his son, who had an undiagnosed mental illness. Now, Broderick  is on a mission to increase awareness of the signs of mental illness that he missed in his son.

Last year he began speaking to high school and college students as part of the Change Direction New Hampshire campaign and he continues that effort tomorrow in Canaan, N.H., in a joint appearance with state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.

Broderick joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello today to talk about the campaign.

In your talks to young people, you've been talking about the five signs of emotional suffering, those are agitation, personality change, poor self care, withdrawal, and hopelessness.  What do you hope will happen once young people have the knowledge of these five signs?

The hope is it will start a conversation, especially in schools, initially, and hopefully at home, and in other settings where young people gather. What I've learned in my travels, and I've now spoken in about 50 high schools to thousands and thousands of high school kids, this issue of mental health awareness and changing the conversation is really important. And if you or your listeners were with me on those mornings and saw these kids with the wet eyes and their cracky voices, who come up to me after I talk because they know I won't judge them, and they share their stories with me.

Why is it important that you focus your efforts on young people as opposed to adults?

It's universally needed. But with respect to young people, half of all mental illness in America arises by age 14. Two-thirds of mental illness arises by age 23. And that's where the bulls-eye is. So when I go to high schools, or even college campuses, that's where much of mental illness takes hold. It's not limited, obviously, you can have a mental health problem at any time in your life, and one in five adults do during their lifetime. But the bulls-eye is with young people, and if you get to mental health problems early, Peter,  all the professionals tell me that you can do quite a bit. 

So part of your lecture has to do with this acronym, REACT, which essentially spells out a series of steps or things that people can do to respond when people see a sign of mental illness. Why is this important?

The REACT acronym is important because what it's trying to do is to tell children, or anybody for that matter, is what you really need to do is to engage people you think are demonstrating signs or symptoms of mental illness. We're all conditioned, Peter. If you or I saw somebody walk into a room and they were limping, we would go over and say, 'Are you ok? Did you fall? Do you need an ambulance? Do you need to see a doctor?' But if someone was sitting in the corner, and there was no explanation and they were crying, we would probably leave them alone. Or somebody said, 'I don't want to go to lunch any more at the high school, I'm just going to sit over here by myself.' We'd probably say, well, they're entitled to their privacy. When in fact they might be withdrawing, which could be a sign of a mental health problem. So we want people to recognize the signs, express concerns and offer support. We want them to act, and talk to somebody.

What are some of the stories from students, young people, you've heard that have stayed with you?

Well, I'll tell you one story that stuck with me. She was an eighth grader. She came up to me in the auditorium after I finished speaking. She waited around but didn't have the courage to actually come up. I said, 'Do you want to talk?' And she said yes. So she and I were sitting in the front row of a near dark auditorium. She told me her name Peter, and that she was 13, and then she said, in the next breath, I have pretty serious depression and anxiety. And I said to her, that's not easy, is it? And she said, no, it's not. I said, well, let me tell you two things that I think should make you feel better. No. 1, you're 13 and you know you have a mental health problem. A lot of people don't know that. They just think it's how they are. They don't know it's a health issue. So that's good. And there's a lot of counseling and treatment available.  And, secondly, I want you to know that you're not the only kid in this high school with those problems. She said, I'm not - I thought I was. I said, Oh, statistically, there are dozens and dozens of kids here who are suffering, too. When I drove home that day, never having met that girl before or seen her since, I hope she goes to see a teacher. And then I thought, could I have been in a more important place that morning? Could I have had a more important conversation with anyone? And all I said to draw her to the front of the auditorium was: It's not your fault. There's no shame that you need to feel. And treatment is available. So, please, don't put yourself in the shadows and the shame anymore. It's not needed."