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UC Berkeley psychology professor writes gripping account of his fatherís mental illness
05 November 2002

By Carol Hyman, Media Relations

Berkeley - Stephen Hinshaw, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, has moved beyond the academic to the very personal in his latest book. "The Years of Silence Are Past: My Father's Life with Bipolar Disorder" (Cambridge University Press, 2002), is a compelling account of his father's lifelong struggle with what also is known as manic-depressive illness.

Hinshaw discusses the stigma still attached to mental illness, and his book sends a strong message about the necessity for clear and accurate diagnoses. Blending his roles as biographer, son and psychologist, Hinshaw integrates personal and family accounts with the perspective of a leader in his field.

"Hinshaw portrays his father's struggles with clear-eyed compassion and describes vividly the complexity of their relationship," writes Kay Redfield Jamison, author of "An Unquiet Mind," in the foreword to Hinshaw's book. "Professor Hinshaw has written a compelling book about fathers and sons, madness, and the intolerance of society and the academic and medical communities... He has also written an excellent book, one that will go far beyond the academic world, and for that I am particularly delighted."

Along with a narrative account of his father's life and his own reactions to growing up in a household permeated by mental disorder, Hinshaw describes the factors that contribute to serious mental disorder, issues related to diagnosis and treatment, and the resilience and courage that can accompany serious mental disturbance.

The book's title speaks to the utter lack of discussion, while he and his sister were growing up, about their father's mental disorder. "I know only that he sometimes would be gone from the house, without any explanation for shorter or longer periods of time," Hinshaw writes. "I knew also that no one talked about these absences or about the occasionally unusual behavior he exhibited when he was present. When he returned, nothing was said, and I somehow knew not to ask."

Even so, Hinshaw said his father remained a supportive and loving presence, despite repeated episodes and hospitalizations.

Finally, when Hinshaw was home on break during his freshman year at Harvard University, his father called him into his study for the first of a series of talks.

"With rapt attention, I listened, still frightened, but quite alert," Hinshaw writes. "He begins describing his nighttime journey in Pasadena, at age 16, framing it in terms of his fear of Nazi domination. I sense right away that very few people have ever heard him say such things."

Through these discussions, his father's handwritten recollections, and information from family members, Hinshaw recreates the incident that led to his father's first hospitalization for mental illness.

Teenaged Virgil Hinshaw shed his clothes, climbed onto the roof of the house, and with the delusion that he could fly, jumped to the yard. With minor injuries, he was taken shackled to a county hospital. Unable to afford private hospitalization, his parents moved him to a county hospital for the mentally ill and retarded. Hinshaw describes his father's warehousing, tied to his bed in an attempt to thwart his agitation. In February, he recovered, almost as if he had been spontaneously healed.

Through letters and talks with family members, Stephen Hinshaw digs deep into his father's life. Virgil Hinshaw suffered his first adversity when he was three; his mother died after surgery for an ovarian tumor. A year later, his father remarried after moving the family from Illinois to Southern California.

When he was 10, the Great Depression began. And he long remembered the blend of religious training and punishments received at the family home, wondering if he were somehow to blame for a lifetime filled with recurrent periods of chaos and psychosis, intermixed with normal functioning. .

After that first hospitalization, he received no counseling. He enrolled in junior college, and then finished his degree at Stanford University. From there he went to the University of Iowa for a Master's degree in philosophy, and then on to Princeton University for his Ph.D.

Stephen Hinshaw chronicles his father's study at Princeton, where he worked with such luminaries as Bertrand Russell. "His academic career was ascending," Hinshaw writes, "with the chaos and hospitalization of mid-adolescence receding further into the background."

But in 1945, just after finishing his dissertation, paranoia and agitation returned. This time, Virgil Hinshaw was hospitalized in Philadelphia. Eight years after his initial hospitalization, he still received no real treatment. He was given insulin "shock" therapy, an early variant of electroconvulsive therapy. As earlier, after five months his symptoms seemed to disappear practically overnight, and he was discharged.

In 1946, Virgil Hinshaw began his long affiliation with Ohio State University. He achieved the rank of full professor, despite periodic bouts of serious mental illness and hospitalization, and taught there for 49 years. Because of his son's expertise in clinical psychology, he finally received proper diagnosis and treatment, after having been treated for schizophrenia instead of bipolar illness 40 years after his initial episode. His medication was changed to lithium, and his mental health improved greatly, though the medicine left him with side effects, including tremors.

Stephen Hinshaw also reveals much of his own history as he recounts his father's life. He discusses his own fears of mental illness and how he learned to cope with those feelings. He also describes his hopes about becoming a father himself.

"Hinshaw tells an engaging personal account of bipolar disorder," writes professor Norman Endler of New York University. "This book is of significant value to sufferers of bipolar disorder and their families, as it offers a new understanding of the illness."

Hinshaw is former director of the clinical science program at UC Berkeley. He has authored more than 130 articles, chapters and reviews, and is the author of the book, "Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity in Children" (Sage, 1994). He is the immediate past president of the International Society for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychopathology and currently is president of Division 53 of the American Psychological Association.