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The Cost of Silence on Mental Illness

June 28, 2017

Nothing is more disastrous for individuals and families struggling with mental health challenges than isolation. Stephen Hinshaw offers us a powerful reminder of the damage that shame and secrecy can do in a gripping memoir of his father, Another Kind of Madness.

Dr. Hinshaw, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, writes that his dad was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1946 at the age of 16. He had jumped off the roof of his boyhood home, naked, thinking he could fly. The treatments he endured were often harrowing, but the most stunning thing about his long struggle with mental illness was that it was kept secret from virtually everyone around him — including his two children. Periodically Dad would behave erratically and then disappear, with no explanation to the kids. He’d reappear weeks or months later — with no comment, and no questions asked.

Dr. Hinshaw describes the acute distress this silence caused him as a child, when he agonized over his father’s absences and felt overwhelming pressure to act as if all were well. “Whatever lay behind the silence must have been so devastating,” he writes, “that it would have destroyed us if brought into the open.”

It wasn’t until his freshman year in college that Dr. Hinshaw’s father, a gentle, somewhat cerebral philosophy professor, told him about his illness and repeated hospitalizations. Tortured by the fear that he would suffer the same fate as his father, Dr. Hinshaw in turn hid his family history for years, struggling to repress his anxiety and developing harmful behaviors of his own. It wasn’t until he opened up about his and his family’s struggles that he was able to break the cycle. And it wasn’t until he became a mental health professional himself that he was able to help his dad get more effective treatment and a correct diagnosis, of bipolar disorder.

In Another Kind of Madness, Dr. Hinshaw uses his personal story to demonstrate how stigma can multiply the consequences of mental illness, with devastating results not only for the individual, but for everyone close to him.

Tagged with: Stigma
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller is the editorial director of the Child Mind Institute. In that role she directs development of resources on … Read Bio