By Honorable John T. Broderick
For all of my life mental illness has lived in the shadows, stolen futures and made people ashamed. I, like all of you, have learned that it is not alright to have mental health problems so when we discover them in ourselves or in someone we love we have learned to conceal them as best we can and for as long as possible. Although mental wellness is discussed abstractly more today than in years past, it is still a topic with risk, especially if it strikes close to home. Many people and families are suffering, privately afraid that their secret will be discovered. Many people live in fear of innocent questions. How is your daughter doing? Where is your son working? Why is your father out of work?
When I was a child cancer was equally hidden and only whispered. In my childhood, it was often referred to as the “C word.” There was some concern that if you said cancer out loud you might contract it or cause the person afflicted to be ostracized. Remember when Aids was first identified? Nobody wanted anyone to know they carried the virus for fear they could lose their job, their apartment or their friends. Then Magic Johnson confessed that he had HIV and effective treatment became a national priority.
Every illness from my childhood is treated with respect and humanity. There is no shame to heart disease, diabetes, cancer of any kind, bad backs or bad knees. But that is not true for mental illness. That reality seems particularly cruel to me since every person with a mental illness shares two things in common: they didn’t ask for it and don’t deserve it. One in five adults (almost 43 million people) experience a mental health issue in any given year. More people died from suicide last year in the United States than died on our highways. One brave veteran takes their own life almost every 90 minutes every day, every week and every year. Half of all mental illness has its onset before age 14 and 2/3 by age 23. Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada. But almost nobody talks about it. That needs to change.
Nothing will change until we all become better informed about mental illness so it can be identified and effectively treated as early as possible. Nothing will change until we know and can discuss without discomfort its common signs.
In an effort to improve public knowledge and awareness about the five most common signs of mental illness/emotional suffering and to change the unfair culture that surrounds it, New Hampshire became the first place in the nation to launch the Change Direction campaign statewide. The launch occurred on a Monday morning in May in the House Chamber at the State House. It was not a session day but we filled the 400-seat chamber to overflowing.
This non-partisan, non-political public awareness campaign on mental illness/emotional suffering is the genius of child psychologist Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen of Maryland. Its goal is simple, powerful and timely: to make the five most common signs of mental illness/emotional suffering (change in personality, agitation, withdrawal, decline in personal care and hopelessness) as well known and as widely known as the signs of a heart attack or a stroke. If we achieve that in our state, lives will be changed and saved. The Change Direction campaign is supported by all members of our Congressional delegation, the Governor, the Speaker of the New Hampshire House and our Senate President. It has also won the endorsement of leaders in the civic, educational, business, law enforcement, mental health and faith communities. Both the Catholic and Episcopal Bishops have written letters to their respective clergy supporting our campaign.
We need to change the dialog around mental illness and learn to treat it with the same respect and empathy we afford every physical illness. We need to talk about it and de-mythologize it. We need to normalize it in our every-day lives. The bullseye for the onset of mental illness/emotional suffering is the age bracket between 12 and 23. Sadly, those suffering are often the last to know they have a mental illness. They most often believe their feelings and struggles are “just them.” Help and treatment abound but many remain in the shadows and away from medical assistance because they don’t know they have a health problem or, if they do, many are too ashamed to confront it.
Peter Evers, the CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord, Dr. Bill Gunn, who is the Director of Behavioral Health at Concord Hospital and I co-chair Change Direction in New Hampshire. We can attest from our granular experience speaking to many different audiences and at many public forums that the campaign has touched a nerve. Our everyday experience has only re-affirmed our belief that culture change and supportive conversations are essential if we are to bring our friends and those we love out of the shadows for treatment and help. It is way past time.
If you would like more information or would like someone to speak to your group directly about Change Direction, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also suggest you visit our website at www.changedirection.org/nh.
Hon. John T. Broderick, Jr., is Co-Chair of Change Direction New Hampshire and former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.< Back to Town And City Home