The stigma of mental illness is our shame, not theirs

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John Dixon, left, and former chief justice of the N.H. Supreme Court John Brodeick Jr. both know how mental illness can profoundly impact family. (Dixon photo, The Rochester Voice; Broderick photo, courtesy)

Editor's note: The Rochester Voice today publishes the second of a three-part series looking into the mental health crisis currently overwhelming New Hampshire's health provider system and what can be done to right the ship.

Part 2, Today: The solution to the state's mental health crisis is not only more beds and treatment facilities but a change in attitude that this is a disease like heart disease or diabetes, not a stigmatizing condition that should be swept under the rug.

Former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court John Broderick Jr. and John Dixon, who works for technology giant Siemen's at the Pease Tradeport, have a common goal driven by common experience: They both work tirelessly to destigmatize the scourge of mental illness after they encountered the disease in a family member.

For Broderick, it culminated in the March 2002 headline-splashed assault by his son on him with a guitar while he was sleeping, a savage beating he doesn't remember but put him in intensive care with a broken jaw and other serious injuries for weeks.

His son, Christian, 30 at the time, spent three years in state prison before being paroled. John Broderick spent months recovering from his injuries.

For Dixon, it was far less violent yet just as traumatic. It was a simply a "series of events that became more and unusual over time," he said. Dixon, who lives in the Northern Seacoast, agreed to be interviewed for this story with the understanding that only "family member" be used to described their relationship.

Now both Broderick and Dixon are on separate crusades and different paths to bring mental illness from their shadowy past of "nuthouses" and "asylums" to the light of day where they are recognized as simply another disease that we as a nation have to try to conquer and cure.

More importantly, in the meantime, is the public must be educated, said Broderick, co-chair of Change Direction New Hampshire, a campaign seeking to raise awareness of the five major signs of emotional suffering that could indicate someone needs help.

Broderick has been the pointman in a statewide push to educate junior high and high school students about mental health awareness.

Speaking at schools throughout the Granite State, he has become acutely aware of the enormity of the problem by talking to troubled youngsters at many of the venues where he has spoken.

"Some 25-30 percent of the kids in New Hampshire have a diagnosable mental health problem," said Broderick in an exclusive interview with The Rochester Voice in July. "Hundreds come up to me; kids tell me they cut themselves."

Broderick is convinced we are not dealing with - even closing our eyes to - the problems of mental health, especially in our youth where it usually first rears its ugly head.

He said he recently asked a group of about 150 students, "Do you or someone you love suffer from a mental health issue?" All but two raised their hands, he said.

He said half of mental health symptoms appear by age 14, two thirds by 23 and that last year more people died by suicide than every car accident in the country.

But Broderick and Dixon both insist the biggest single obstacle to bettering our understanding and treatment of mental health is the way we view mental health.

The key word is destigmatization.

Soon after Dixon realized his family member had a problem with mental illness, he joined the National Alliance of Mental Illness, where he is currently a facilitator working with families who have a loved one who is suffering.

"The problem is stigma, and stigma is lack of education," Dixon said earlier this month during an interview with The Rochester Voice. "And the system is the most stigmatizing."

To prove that the system is stigmatizing Broderick points out the number of patients housed at state hospital emergency departments who are waiting for beds at the state's mental health facility in Concord.

"Do you think if they were heart patients needing acute medical care for heart disease they'd be waiting like that?" Broderick asked.

Broderick believes for far too long society, including social morays and just plain ignorance, have kept the scourge of mental illness from the light of day.

"Hey folks, we have a problem, we've had them in the shadows for generations; how's that working?" he asks rhetorically.

Both Dixon and Broderick say the only answer is education.

Dixon, who's been working at the state level with NAMI on a 10-year plan, says community outreach will be key to turning this around.

He says we need anti-stigma mental health messaging on TV and radio, and outreach to, teachers, clinicians and other people on the front lines of contact with youth to be aware of how young people are coping.

Dixon especially takes heart in a recently released commercial on TV that advertises a drug to help bipolar patients.

"It shows that anyone can get this, just having an ad for a drug to help bipolar sufferers is destigmatizing," he said. "Like an ad for a diabetic drug or high cholesterol."

To see if you are infected from mental health stigma you can take a quick quiz on the NAMI website by clicking here.

Part 3, Aug 28: Why does there seem to be more mental illness today, and what is the program that is hoped will begin a conversation to get help to those affected more quickly, saving lives in the process.

Part 1, was published on Aug. 14. Refer to The Rochester Voice archives to read it.

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