Thursday, May 25, 2023

From the Magazine: Lifting the Mask

Lynn University graduate Kevin Lynch founded a charity that is working to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness

When The Quell Foundation was established six years ago, founder Kevin Lynch had no idea how prescient its slogan—”lifting the mask”—would prove to be. In the context of this nonprofit’s work, the phrase doesn’t refer to the masks we’ve grown so accustomed to, but to the metaphoric kind one might wear to hide mental illness.

A Massachusetts native and military veteran, Lynch endured great hardship on the journey that led to the beginnings of Quell. After discharge from service due to injury, Lynch moved to South Florida to be near his aging grandparents, where he began an administrative career in the health care industry. Facing career roadblocks due to his lack of a college degree and struggling to find mental health resources for his son, who struggles with addiction and mental illness, Lynch enrolled at Lynn University at 44, eventually earning his bachelor’s degree.

Tragedy struck when Lynch’s son overdosed, violating his parole, and ushering in a troubled time for his dad—one that became so bleak that Lynch called a VA suicide hotline for support. Following this dark period, Lynch enrolled at Penn State University to pursue his master’s degree.

After completing his master’s thesis on mental health in America while his son remained in jail, Lynch passed up an opportunity for a high-powered position in the health care industry to follow his newfound passion: to try to make a difference for those struggling with mental illness. With that decision, The Quell Foundation was born.

Of the organization’s moniker, Lynch says, “I named it Quell because it means to bring balance and order to chaos. Whether that’s a person who has mental health challenges or a family member or friend that’s supporting someone with a mental health challenge, that’s what we’re always trying to do: bring some balance and order to their chaos.”

Quell’s primary mission is to award scholarships to students pursuing secondary education, which are split into three categories: “Survivor,” which supports students who have lost a parent or sibling to suicide; “Fighter,” which supports students who are being treated for diagnosed mental illness; and “Bridge the Gap,” which supports college students pursuing a “field of study related to the provision of mental health services.”

In the six years since the foundation was established, Quell has grown from a startup nonprofit with 14 scholarship applicants to a booming operation with more than 1,000 applicants for the 2020-21 academic year.

For the first few years, Lynch was the only member of Quell’s staff to review the applications, which were full of grim life stories that deeply affected him. “It trashed me for a couple of months afterwards,” he says. “Literally for months I don’t operate at 100-percent capacity. … I own it, and because it is so hard, for the last couple years I was the only one to read the applications. I didn’t want to put that on my colleagues. It’s hard to digest.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Quell’s process is that each applicant who meets the criteria for a scholarship is approved, with no exceptions. Typical scholarship criteria, such as GPA stipulations, are “not a requirement,” Lynch says. “If the college accepted you, we’re good with that.”

Quell seeks to form lasting bonds with the kids whose education it helps fund. “Our relationship with our scholarship recipients isn’t a check and a ‘good luck.’ It’s a legit relationship,” Lynch says. “We’re gonna call you next month, we’re gonna call you in three months, we’re gonna come visit your campus.”

At times, that relationship extends beyond the students’ academic careers—Quell has a junior board of directors comprised of current and former scholarship recipients who keep the foundation “plugged in” to what’s happening on campuses.

In reading the applications and working with its scholars, Lynch knew he needed to start sharing the stories. “So I reached out to certain people I had met along the way, and asked them if they would consider being part of a documentary.” What followed, after years of work, is the 70-minute film “Lift the Mask,” which focuses on Quell scholarship recipients.

“What I wanted to do is put a face to mental illness that’s incongruent with what you think it looks like,” Lynch says. “I grew up with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ with the idea that people with mental illness are the homeless, the incarcerated, the hospitalized. That’s not the case. It’s the CEO of a hospital, it’s professors and students, it’s everybody. One in four people is going to have, at some point in their life, some form of mental health challenge. Everybody knows someone, so why don’t we talk about it? Why the stigma?”

Quell has hosted screenings of “Lift the Mask” around the country, and surveys spectators before and after viewings to determine the film’s impact. The results have been so promising that data is being compiled for a scientific study that will eventually be peer-reviewed and published. “We have been able to, to some degree, change the way [people who watch the documentary] think, behave, and act around mental health,” Lynch says.

Along with its scholarship programs and documentary filmmaking (a second film is in the works now, focusing on first responders), Quell hosts fundraisers including an annual masquerade ball and produces a podcast called “Lift the Mask—Voices of Heroes in the Silent Pandemic.”

“The days are long, and we get tired sometimes, but profound things happen when we meet other people,” Lynch shares. “I say it all the time to the folks who work with me: We will never know how many lives we impact, but that impact is generational.”

This story is from the January 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

James Biagiotti
James Biagiotti
James Biagiotti is a native of Boca Raton, a marketing professional in South Florida, and the former Web Editor of Boca Raton magazine. He is an avid music fan who spends far too much time listening to, dissecting, and traveling to see his favorite bands. He is also, unfortunately, a devoted Miami Dolphins fan.

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