Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2011 | Reviews

Treating Mental Illness

By Paul Kendall

Your article ["Bonfires of the Mind," Iowa Alumni Magazine, April 2011, p. 16] should be mandatory reading for all undergraduates at Iowa and any other university. It shows that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, notwithstanding societal stigmatization based on pure ignorance. Even more important, it shows how help should be sought early and self-diagnosis should be avoided. Better to ask and receive help if necessary rather than suffer the consequences of untreated mental illness.

I have a lot of personal experience with mental illness. My youngest son took his own life in September 1996 at age 16, shortly after being diagnosed with juvenile schizophrenia. He was on medication, but he often refused to take it because the side effects were bad or worse for him than the dark voices he heard in his head. And, as bad fortune would have it, it turned out that his medication was associated with an increase in suicide. No one knew this until years after my son was gone from his life. In spite of my own loss, I would urge any young man or woman to seek help if they even suspect whether they need medical intervention.

Prior to my retirement as an administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration, I heard and decided appeals from people who had been denied disability benefits. Where mental illness was alleged as the basis for an inability to work, I often found that such illnesses had gone undiagnosed and untreated for years, to a point that work ability had been severely compromised. Unfortunately, too many people in our society stigmatize mental illness, as if somehow it's the fault of the individual. Using disparaging terms such as "crazy," "nuts," or "retarded" only exacerbates the low self-esteem many people with mental illness feel. Would people with physical illnesses be called "crazy?" Yet, several physical illnesses can lead to the development of mental health problems, such as major depression. People must realize that our physical and mental health cannot be compartmentalized or separated.

It is heartening to me that [UI student] Brett Brinkmeyer is now undergoing treatment and reducing his bipolar symptoms. It is vital to his daily well-being and future that he take his medication as prescribed and keep all follow-up appointments with his doctor.

Paul S. Kendall*, 66BA
Arlington, Texas