How To Triumph Over Mental Illness: Advice From Glenn Close
Education and Advocacy Emmy Award-winning actress Glenn Close shares her story dealing with mental health issues and the importance of breaking the stigma.
Mediaplanet: What inspired you to advocate your experience with depression?
Glenn Close: My sister, Jessie, and my nephew, Calen, inspired me to talk about my experience with depression. They were brave enough to talk about living with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia on a national platform when I co-founded Bring Change to Mind. In our first PSA, they were brave enough to wear the name of their illnesses on t-shirts in Grand Central Station for an entire day. When I was diagnosed with a form of mild, chronic depression, I was shocked, but it made sense. I immediately found it difficult to tell people and that shocked me as well. But then I thought of Jessie and Calen and their courage to speak about their much more serious illnesses and I felt there was no alternative than to open up about my diagnosis. The more you force yourself to talk about it, the less stigmatizing it feels.
MP: What can people living with mental health conditions do to take a stand and speak up for themselves?
GC: I think the most important first step for someone living with a mental illness who want to take a stand and speak up for themselves is to find a community of people in the same situation. No one wants to feel alone and marginalized. We all survive emotionally and spiritually, by making connections with others. Log onto our website, Bring Change to Mind, and read the stories of people with the same challenges and desires. Form a community of your own — a safe and stigma-free place where people can talk freely about what they face every day. Embrace the fact that you are not alone. If there is silence in your family, find the courage to start the conversation. If you need a best friend who has your back, then have them with you. Mental disorders are part of what it means to be a human being — a very sensitive and creative one, at that!
MP: Can you tell me more about Bring Change 2 Mind and how it was inspired by your sister, Jessie, and nephew, Calen, who experience bipolar disorder and schizophrenia?
GC: Jessie came up to me one day and said, “I need your help. I can’t stop thinking about killing myself.” I had absolutely no clue that she was suffering to that degree. Fortunately, our mother and I were able to help her with the costs of going to McLean Hospital for five weeks. It was there that she was finally properly diagnosed — Bipolar Disorder 1 with a tendency to of a mixed-state and rapid cycling. Jessie and Calen both told me that the stigma around mental health could be just as cruel as the diseases themselves. Jessie was terrified that if word got out that she was “crazy”, no one would let their kids come over to her house to play. When Calen came back from his two-year stay in the hospital, none of his friends were there to greet him and to help him figure out how to navigate the social challenges that he was bound to encounter. It was devastating. Not only did Calen have to learn how to manage his frightening illness, but he also had to do it alone, feeling totally cut off from what had been a very happy, active circle of friends. There is perhaps nothing more toxic to the human spirit than the feeling of being marginalized, marked, and different. The feeling of shame and isolation that stigma evokes is lethal and makes the work of recovery massively more difficult.
So my initial mission in founding Bring Change to Mind was to simply start the conversation. How to do that? Because I’ve been in the entertainment industry for 42 years, my first thought was to create science-based Public Service Announcements that would help to plow the field so that conversation could grow. We have continued to make PSAs, which have reached over a billion people on social media. Simple, creative messages of hope and inclusion can be very powerful and encouraging for people to make that first step.
Because of the nature of what we are dealing with around mental health issues, I always thought it is crucial for our initiatives to be based in good science. We want to see measurable results so that we have data in hand when approaching possible funders and partners. We want the assurance that we are actually “moving the needle”. So we have been doing just that in our pilot, LETS Bring Change to Mind clubs in northern California. And, as well, on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, IL, where, as part of a campus-wide study, students are designing campaigns to fight against stigma and testing them on site — creating a College Tool Box that we will be able to send out to other colleges and universities.
MP: What can we do to create a movement and strip the stigma from mental illness and end discrimination from people who have it?
GC: I think the biggest problem about the way we talk about mental illness is the “us versus them” mentality. To be human is to be flawed because we are such finely tuned organisms. Rare is the human being who has never had any mental health issues. So we are in this together and we should approach mental health from that perspective. It’s a very powerful exercise to try to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, devoid of judgment, but that’s what we must do to make our advocacy not only intellectual, but visceral as well.
MP: What do you think is the biggest problem about the way we currently talk about mental illness?
GC: Pay attention to those around you. If someone’s behavior starts seeming out of the norm, try to talk to him or her about what is going on. Help them get help and then be a consistent support. Listen. Listen. Listen. Do not judge. Do not be afraid. Know that that person is probably three times more terrified than you. And educate yourself. Start by logging onto Bring Change to Mind and The Mighty and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Go to government mental health sites and see what is being done. Go to the sites for NAMI and Mental Health America. Go onto sites that can teach you about whatever disorder you are most interested in. Start talking about it in your family and outside.
MP: How can people who are not suffering, assist those who are?
GC: Wow! That is a huge question!!! I think we keep on doing what we’re doing. Create partnerships. Be bold. Be creative. The irony is that the most valuable tool in changing people’s perceptions about mental illness are the stories of those who are living with it and those who support them. So, help think of ways to spread those stories. I think we must confront our politicians and demand to be heard. They must hear the stories — the triumphs and also the tragedies. So many people are falling through the cracks. So many families have nowhere to turn. It is a monumental challenge, but not impossible.