There is No Shame

By Lee Vorderer

Former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court John Broderick and Congressman Seth Moulton had a lot to say about mental health on Monday at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital (the Bedford VA).  Chief Justice Broderick recounted his experience as a parent of two sons, the older of whom experienced undiagnosed mental illness from his early teens.  Congressman Moulton shared a story of his experiences as a Marine in Iraq. Their simple message? There is no shame in having a mental illness.

Learning this powerful lesson took Broderick and his wife from their son’s early teens through high school, college, graduate school, and finally, to prison. As parents, they didn’t know how to look at what their son was experiencing – his school work was strong, he was an amazing artist, he was talented and charming and friendly, but he was also miserable.  He didn’t sleep well, and he found a way to deal with how he felt through alcohol abuse. Their son kept assuring his parents that he didn’t have a drinking problem, and as he became more involved with alcohol, his parents found themselves telling each other that this was his college experience.

After graduate school, their son moved home, was drinking all the time, couldn’t hold down jobs for more than a few weeks, and still, his parents didn’t think about whether mental illness was at the root of their son’s problems.  They tried alcohol rehab programs – which didn’t work.  They tried everything but looking for an underlying mental health problem. Eventually, their son assaulted his father so seriously that Broderick was in the ICU for days and in the hospital for more than a week.  The police became involved, and Broderick couldn’t visit his son for weeks while he was being held for trial. Eventually, his son was sentenced to 3 and a half years in prison. Still, no one was talking about any mental health issues.

When he was a child, Broderick’s best friend had an uncle who lived at the Danvers State Mental Hospital, and when that uncle visited, the friend and his family isolated themselves; the best friend referred to his uncle as living at the “nut house”.  That term is one many of us learned to use to refer to the several large mental health hospitals across Massachusetts, and thus the people who lived there were spoken of as “nuts”.

We were taught to be afraid of mental illness, not to talk about it, to ignore it, and our behavior was supported by our language and by other stigma-inducing and confirming experiences in our society, like movies and television.

We learned to avoid dealing with mental illness and those who had it, to the point where the concept of mental illness itself took on the trappings of something to be afraid of and to avoid.

It was during his evaluation, as part of the process of placement in prison, where the conversation about mental illness finally came about.  The prison psychologist confirmed that Broderick’s son was very smart, very talented, very social….and severely depressed. The prison began a regimen of medication and counseling that gave Broderick’s son his life back.  He was able to sleep; he described himself to his father, after four months in prison, as “himself, again.” He was released from prison early and is now married, with a future.

Broderick says that the lesson he takes from this is that there is no shame in mental illness…not for families who don’t know what to do with it, not to those experiencing it, not to the society in which we all live. He kept saying, “I didn’t know this but I do now”.

Broderick has spent the last 34 months traveling around New England, implementing part of a public health campaign about mental illness.  He talks with anyone – groups of families, high school students, middle school students, church groups, Veteran’s groups – to anyone who is willing to listen to his message about bringing mental illness into the mainstream of conversation.

He shared some powerful statistics – that half of the people with mental illness could be diagnosed by age 13½; two-thirds experience their illness by age 23; and each year, more than 45 thousand people die by suicide.

Broderick’s mission is to help people see mental illness as a health problem, not a character problem or a weakness. And at most of his talks, parents, and children come up to him in tears, thanking him for shining a light on their lives and their need.

Congressman Moulton’s presentation was shorter but still powerful.  He talked about a Marine named James who was in his platoon in Iraq.  James was a committed medic who, after discharge, went into nursing and got a great job.

He also was discharged with PTSD.  He was given medication instead of any form of counseling. Later, James died of an overdose at age 30.  He didn’t know where to turn for the help he needed.

Moulton also shared a story about himself.  He was on a mission where the temperature was in the mid 120s, he and his fellow Marines hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours, they had no water, and they were spread out, preparing to initiate an attack. When the roll of names was called before the beginning of the attack, one of the men didn’t answer the call.  Moulton found his fellow marine dead from an enemy-inflicted wound in the neck, and Moulton still feels his loss and some responsibility for the death. As a Marine, he was charged with having his fellow Marines’ backs.  Why wasn’t he able to prevent that Marine’s death?

The Bedford VA is known through the VA system as a great place to go for treatment for PTSD and for other mental illnesses that soldiers experience.  And the VA’s hosting of this conversation with Broderick and Moulton shows its commitment to bringing mental illness into everyone’s’ conversation.

The message from both speakers was clear: whatever the cause, mental illness is an illness, like diabetes or heart disease.  It responds to treatment.  People with mental illnesses can get better.  And most important: there is no shame in having a mental illness, in dealing with mental illness, in talking about mental illness.

Recognize the signs of emotional suffering;
Express concern and offer support;
Act now and talk to someone you trust;
Care enough to follow through and follow up
Text ‘HELP’ to 741-741 (24/7)

EDITOR’S NOTE: At 8:30 am on Sunday March 31, the Bedford Lyceum at First Parish on Bedford Common will present In Our Own Words a program by Boston NAMI, coordinated by Lee Vorderer.

As a follow up to First Parish’s recent Access for ALL service on anxiety, members of the Boston NAMI chapter will speak and answer questions about their experiences with mental illness, stigma, and any general questions around invisible disabilities that the congregation might have.  “In Our Own Voices” will include a conversation/presentation, along with a short film. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

NAMI’s local Bedford affiliate, NAMI of Central Middlesex, has an active website — – and can be found on both Facebook and Twitter.

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