Merrimack Valley Magazine
August 24, 2020
John Broderick Jr. grew up on the North Shore in the 1950s, enjoying a typical childhood before embarking on an extraordinary legal career. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross and earning his J.D. at the University of Virginia School of Law, Broderick served as chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court from 2004 to 2010 and then dean of the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.
The North Andover resident insists, however, that he didn’t embark on the “most important work I’ve ever done” until 2016. It was then that he began talking about the assault that nearly took his life on Good Friday in 2002.
“I’m a baby boomer, and for most of my childhood and adult life no one spoke about mental health,” says Broderick, now 72 and senior director of external affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health. “My mother told me not to get into a car with a stranger. I learned if you catch on fire, roll around on the ground. But no one ever said, ‘Let me tell you about mental health,’ because no one knew much about it. So I remained in ignorance until it affected my own family.
Looking back, Broderick and his wife, Patricia, began noticing changes in their older son, Christian, when he was 13. A talented artist, Christian withdrew to his room, spending all his time drawing with the door closed. He began skipping classes, took up smoking in high school and didn’t have as many friends as his younger brother, Matthew.
When Christian began college, Broderick and his wife worried about his declining personal hygiene and increasingly heavy drinking. However, they believed the behaviors were indicative of “creative people who march to a different beat” and college kids in general.
“Everything had a common-sense explanation. Like when he lost a job, it was always someone else’s fault,” Broderick recalls. “We’ve since learned our son was self-medicating his severe depression, anxiety and panic attacks. But at the time, we were worried he was becoming an alcoholic.”
Discouraged by a series of failed stays at rehabilitation facilities, the Brodericks were advised by addiction counselors that allowing Christian to live at home while attending graduate school may enable him to drink himself to death. They reluctantly agreed to take the tough love approach, but after three weeks of “dreading the phone call no parent wants to receive,” the Brodericks allowed Christian to return home.
“During that time on the street, my son felt like we had thrown him away, and his mental health issues exploded. His drinking wasn’t any different, and he was fearful we would throw him out again,” Broderick says.
Broderick believes a combination of mental illness, trauma and fear led Christian, then 30, to commit the unprovoked attack that sent his father to the intensive care unit for eight days. Christian eventually was sentenced to 7 1/2 to 15 years, with four years suspended, in New Hampshire state prison, where he was diagnosed with the mental illness that his parents came to realize had long afflicted him.
Before being led away in court to begin serving his sentence, Christian said, “Dad, I am so sorry.”
After learning about his son’s illness from the state prison doctors and witnessing Christian “come back to life” after four months of therapy and medication, it was Broderick’s turn to speak his truth: “Son, how badly did I fail you?”
“I’m the parent. I should have known something,” Broderick says. “But from genuine hopelessness, we came back.”
As Broderick recovered, both physically and emotionally, he was stopped again and again at gas stations and grocery stores and told how well he looked by well-meaning friends and strangers who recognized him from news reports.
“I’d say, ‘Thanks. My son is doing better, too. He has mental health problems.’ And do you know what? Every single person told me about someone they knew with a mental health problem. I thought, ‘Dear God, where have I been living my whole life?’ ”
Broderick was in the media spotlight again when Christian was paroled in 2005 after serving three years of his sentence. In 2016, Broderick decided to bring his family’s story to light again in an effort to help end the social stigma of mental illness.
Broderick led an awareness campaign to educate the public — especially adolescents and teens — on how to identify the signs of mental illness: personality change, withdrawal, agitation, poor self-care and hopelessness. Sponsored by Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the R.E.A.C.T. initiative supplements the Five Signs campaign developed by Maryland psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen of Change Direction and modeled after the effort to provide familiarity with the five signs of physical illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes.
“My goal is to get a ‘five signs of mental illness’ card on every refrigerator in America,” says Broderick, recalling how Christian told him he wishes he had seen one when he was a teen.
To date, Broderick has distributed more than 400,000 cards and shared his family’s story more than 520 times in four states in collaboration with Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the New Hampshire Department of Education, the Vermont Agency of Education and others.
The audience for his message of awareness and compassion has exceeded 110,000 people, including 85,000 students. In addition, the events have sparked a range of other initiatives aimed at raising awareness of the pressures teens face and the resources they require.
The experience, Broderick says, has further “opened my eyes.”
“Almost always when I finish, kids stand up and applaud. Then they come up to me afterward — and sometimes they can’t even speak. Their eyes are wet, or they thank me for standing up for kids like them or they want to hug me,” Broderick says. “I get it now. And because I get it, I want to start a public discussion to fix the mental health system in this country that doesn’t work.”
Today, Broderick is proud that both Christian and Matthew — ages 48 and 46, respectively — are husbands and fathers. He is also grateful that his family’s story is helping provide a lifeline among today’s youths, whom he calls the “least judgmental generation in history.”
“I dedicated my career to promoting justice, and this closing argument I’m making for mental health means more to me than any other argument I’ve ever made in a courtroom,” Broderick says. “I just hope the jury comes back in my favor and changes the health care system and the culture that has allowed it to continue this way for too long.”