Penn State alumnus works to eliminate social stigma of mental illness

When Kevin Lynch enrolled in the Penn State World Campus Master of Health Administration (MHA) program in 2012 he was following a strategic two-part plan.

The first part was vocational: earn a master’s degree to position himself for his dream job – chief operating officer of a hospital.

The second part was paternal: prove to his 26-year-old son that he was not too old to go to college by returning to school himself at 49. Father and son would pursue their degrees together, as a team.

Then the plan derailed.

Before applying to college, Lynch said his son, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a child, served eight years in prison with six years in isolation. Following his release, Lynch said his son’s condition had worsened and he was unable to receive necessary treatment as resources were unavailable. Instead, he found ways to self-medicate.

One week before Lynch and his son were to start school, his son was found with heroin, a probation violation, and a judge sent him back to state prison.

Despite Lynch’s devastation, he decided to proceed with the MHA program in the College of Health and Human Development.

As part of the program, students are required to complete a capstone project, which culminates with an oral presentation. Lynch decided to investigate the connection between arrests and people who suffer from mental illnesses.

“I read and researched over 900 pages of information. My final paper and presentation was right around 170 pages,” Lynch said. “Every page, without exception, I sent to my son. I wanted him to read what I was reading so he could come to understand the illness that controlled his behaviors. I also wanted to show him that you don’t get to quit just because things get tough.”

Lynch, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, graduated in December 2014. Soon after, at 51, Lynch achieved his goal and received an offer for his dream job.

But he turned it down.

“I could not take this paper, which I invested hundreds and hundreds of hours in, and put it in a drawer,” Lynch said. “I learned so much about this underserved population, the stigmas and genesis of them, and the disgraceful lack of funding and treatment for mental health, that I stepped back and committed the rest of my career to making a change – real change.”

Following his new calling, Lynch founded the Quell Foundation, based in North Falmouth, Massachusetts, which works to eliminate the social stigma of mental illness by providing scholarships to students entering the mental health care field and students who have been diagnosed with a mental health illness; educating communities to reduce suicides, drug overdoses, and incarceration of people with treatable mental illnesses; and training first responders to recognize signs of mental distress.

The Quell Foundation also launched the Lift the Mask project, a published compilation of personal mental health stories to encourage a judgment-free dialogue about mental health. Lynch hopes the book will ultimately be required reading for health care and first responder degree programs.

In June, Lynch was invited to the White House for a panel discussion on mental health. It was there that Lynch lifted his own mask and revealed he suffers from depression.

“When my son was arrested for the second time, I fell into an incredibly dark abyss. Being accepted into the MHA program at Penn State kept me from falling further. Instead of quitting, I went to a doctor and received the help I needed,” Lynch said. “When I spoke at the White House it was the first time I have ever said this out loud, in public. I said, ‘I’m six-feet four-inches, 240 pounds. I take depression medication. This is what mental health looks like, big deal.’ ”

Learn more about the Quell Foundation at thequellfoundation.org.

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Last Updated September 30, 2016