He Was the Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. One Night, His Son Attacked Him.

One night, New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick awoke to find himself in the ICU.  He had been attacked by his son who was experiencing a mental health crisis. The story made national news.  But it was only after the cameras left that the real story began.

Since that day, Justice Broderick has been on a journey of discovery and leadership on mental health in America. He’s working to improve understanding and awareness of mental illness in order to get rid of some of the myths, encourage discussion and treatment, and begin to change the culture that surrounds mental health.

He appeared on the “Beyond Politics” podcast broadcast on WKXL in Concord, NH with Matt Robison to share his remarkable story of health, struggle, recovery, and hope.

Listen to the full conversation here:

This conversation has been condensed and edited

What set you onto this journey?

My own family’s rather public story involving mental illness.  My son has a college degree and a master’s degree. He’s really smart, a talented artist, a self-taught musician, and handsome.  But his life was not connecting. And when we finally saw the problem, we only saw the alcohol. He was self-medicating his underlying mental health problems. It took my son to the state prison. It took me to the ICU at the Elliot Hospital in Manchester.

After about four or five months of treatment in prison and taking prescribed medications, he came out one night during visiting hours and he said to my wife and me “I feel totally different, I can sleep through the night…I haven’t been able to do that since I was a child…my mind’s not racing.”

The point is, my son’s not a bad person who suddenly became a good person. He’s always been a good person. People would come up to me at gas stations and grocery stores and open up to me about people they knew struggling with mental health: my mother, my father, my cousin, my brother.  I heard about suicide attempts. I heard about alcoholism.  And I realized that there is a problem that felt solitary to us, but was actually widely shared.

What have you been doing as part of your advocacy?

Over the last five years, I’ve been to 300 high schools and middle schools. I’ve given my talk to 90,000 kids. I’ve spoken to 30,000 adults.  We’ve given out a 450,000 of these cards describing the signs of mental illness. I want one on every refrigerator. We need to recognize the signs better. One in five adolescents in the United States will have a mental illness. Between 2007 and 2017, the rate of suicide for people from ages 10 to 24 increased 56%. We lose 20 veterans a day in America to suicide, and it’s the leading cause of death among law enforcement and first responders. This is a conversation this country has avoided for generations. And we’ve got to start talking about it.

Are mental disorders the leading cause of disability in America?

Yes. Over the last five years, American businesses have lost upwards of 200 billion a year because of mental health and substance abuse. And its rampant in young people, but we don’t have a system to help.  If your 15 year old son or daughter falls playing basketball and breaks a leg, you call 911.  If your 15 year old has a chronic mental health problem, who do you call? When do you get in? Who pays for it?

Do younger generations view mental health differently than previous ones?

I love this young generation. They will change things.  The culture is so different now. When I was a kid, we used to whisper if we had to say the word cancer.  Now the Patriots wear pink shoes and the Red Sox use pink bats to draw attention. We should all be proud of what we’ve done on awareness and treatment. There are even more people affected every year by mental health, and there’s always been this stigma. So we need the same kind of change.

How much has our prison and jail system taken on the role of being our mental health system in America?

They have become the default mental health system in the United States. Right now 65% of the women in the Concord women’s prison have a diagnosable mental health problem. It’s about 45% in the men’s prison. They didn’t develop it the day after they arrived. They brought it with them.

We have 1.4 million lawyers in this country.  But we have only 28,000 psychiatrists. In a nation of 333 million people. We also don’t have enough psychiatric nurse practitioners, psychiatric social workers, and mental health counselors. We don’t incentivize people to go into one of those fields. So we need to try to deal with this kind of imbalance if we want to have a real mental health system.

Has your thinking about criminal justice changed since you were on the court and through your experiences and your advocacy?

When I was on the court, we started and expanded mental health courts in New Hampshire for non-violent offenders. We tried to keep those people out of the justice system in terms of incarceration. In this country, we’ll pay to lock people up, but we won’t pay proactively to help you. And we need to. Because my goal as a member of the judicial branch would be to have fewer criminal defendants in front of me.  And so I want to start early.  We should do universal mental health screening in pediatrician’s offices and health offices around the country.

How is your son doing today?

He came through it.  I’m so proud of him.  And we love him.