When she became famous as the "bunny-boiling" stalker Alex Forrest in 1987's Fatal Attraction, award-winning actress Glenn Close had no idea that her younger sister, Jessie, was dealing with an actual mental illness. Jessie had struggled with bipolar disorder all her life. But she wasn't diagnosed until 2004, when she was 51 and confessed to Glenn that she was constantly thinking of killing herself.
"Our family didn't talk about these things," says Glenn, who guided her sister into a top psychiatric hospital in Boston. The Closes, a wealthy, old family who helped found Greenwich, Connecticut, never discussed the uncle who had committed suicide, or the great-uncle who was institutionalized.
But then, many families didn't -- and still don't. "We treat mental illness the way we talked about cancer decades ago," Glenn says. "It's whispered, it isn't talked about, it's shameful. People with mental illness are treated like they're dangerous and it's their fault."
In 2010, Close founded Bring Change 2 Mind, a national organization that aims to change public attitudes about mental illness through public service announcements and education programs for high school and college students.
Jessie -- and her adult son Calen, who has schizoaffective disorder -- now have their conditions under control, and they often travel with Glenn to speak about the stigma that people with a mental illness face. "My sister has put her whole reputation on the line to help those of us who have mental illness, with no thought of herself and what it might do to her career, because the prejudice is so rampant in our society," Jessie says. "It took courage for her to do that. Mental illness should not be a big dirty secret."
Glenn says one of the best things someone can do to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness is to befriend someone who has one. "You'll see them as just another human being, someone who is just like you."
Update: Glenn Close Helps Change the Conversation About Mental Illness
Close's selection as WebMD's People's Choice Award winner in 2015 "confirmed the topic of mental health is important and deserves the same recognition as any physical illness," says Pamela Harrington, the organization's executive director. The BC2M community grew exponentially in size and strength as a result of the honor, she adds.
"Together our voices are changing the narrative of mental illness from one of stigma to one of hope," Harrington says. "Together we will save lives."
When the family first went public with the story of how mental illness had affected them, it was groundbreaking, Harrington says. With help from director Ron Howard, they released public service announcements that tackled the stigma they had met following diagnoses and treatment.
Speaking publicly was the first step in putting an end to that stigma. "We loved that 2 of the 4 nominees for the People's Choice awards were mental health advocates and that WebMD is using their significant platform to shine a light on this important issue," Harrington says.
Sharing personal stories opens a world of healing, compassion, and empathy. "We encourage families to start the conversation, share their stories, educate themselves and others, and join us," Harrington says.
The campaign is also educating a new generation to talk openly about bipolar disorder, depression, and other conditions. In 2014, Close and her foundation partnered with Indiana University to start the College Toolbox Project, which encourages students with mental health issues to get help and aims to reduce stigma on college campuses. The foundation also started a similar program for high schools, LETSBringChange2Mind.
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