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Glenn Close: Let's End the Stigma Around Mental Illness Now

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In 1987, when Glenn Close was cast as Alex Forrest -- the iconic lead character in Fatal Attraction -- Close met with several psychiatrists. She was hoping to learn more about the obviously troubled lead character. Little did she know, she was also about to learn something more troubling about the status of mentally ill people in our society.

Glenn says those visits provided insight towards the stigma around mental illness: "Not only did I not have a vocabulary for it, I realized, startlingly, that [the psychiatrists] didn't either." She realized that even mental health professionals still struggled to speak openly about mental illness. That experience, along with the experiences in her own family, is part of what made her into the mental health advocate she is today.

I recently had the privilege of attending the annual meeting of One Mind for Research at UCLA. With the ambitious title "Curing Brain Disease," the conference was filled to capacity with neuroscientists and policymakers with a powerful vision: that all mankind experiences a lifetime free of brain disease.

A highlight of the conference was "The Science of Stigma," a panel led by Glenn Close. I was fortunate enough to sit in, and to interview Glenn and the panelists afterward.

Glenn shared with the audience the stories of several of her family members who have been affected by mental illness, and the shame and silence that surrounded their care -- or, more often, lack thereof. Glenn's sister Jessie grew up with severe bouts of depression, which culminated in several suicide attempts before she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 47. Glenn's nephew Calen is living with schizoaffective disorder.

Fortunately, Jessie and Calen are now getting the care they need -- but that's not the case for many. With all of the incredible advances in care for mental illness, there is a huge roadblock between people and the treatment they need: the stigma and shame that pervade our culture regarding mental illness.

Committed to eradicating that stigma, Glenn co-founded Bring Change 2 Mind, a non-profit dedicated to ending the shame and stigma that surround mental illness.

Indiana University's distinguished professor of sociology and chair of Bring Change 2 Mind's advisory council Dr. Bernice Pescosolido spoke on the panel with Glenn Close. Dr. Pescosolido was one of the leading researchers in a study that investigated the attitudes of Americans towards people with mental illness. The study examined the period between 1996 and 2006.

She presented the encouraging findings, that there was a significant increase in understanding that the roots of mental illness are neurobiological, and there was also an increase among individuals to support the use of medical treatments for those with mental illness.

That was the good news.

Dr. Pescosolido proceeded to stun the audience with the tragic fact that in spite of improvements in knowledge regarding the cause of mental illness and increase in support for care, there was absolutely no change in prejudice towards those who experience mental illness. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

After the panel, Dr. Pescosolido and I sat down, and she provided further insights :

When we ask people in the United States, "Do you know somebody or have you yourself had a mental health problem?" about 50 percent of Americans say they do. That turns out to be a very potent factor in decreasing prejudice and discrimination.



At the same time, about 50 percent of Americans express some kind of rejection of people with mental illness. They may not want them in their neighborhood; they may not want [children affected by mental illnesses] in their child's classroom. They don't want them to marry into their family, and they don't want to work closely on the job with them -- even though they are probably working closely on the job with someone with mental illness who is afraid to disclose because of the stigma attached.


It's surprising and saddening that this stigma still exists. If you had a sister or a cousin who was diagnosed with diabetes, hopefully you'd feel no shame or stigma around discussing their condition and getting them the best medical treatment available. And yet, when the problem is mental illness -- affecting the brain and not the pancreas, like diabetes, -- we often don't know how to respond.

Below is a conversation between Glenn and me, in which she opens up about her family's history with mental illness and the ways it affected her life. Glenn also shares some interesting discoveries regarding her roles in film and on the stage and their connection to the stigma surrounding mental illness. She's joined by other panelists, telling their own stories and sharing how you -- unknowingly -- might be part of the problem.

Here are guidelines from Bring Change 2 Mind on how the words you use every day might be causing more damage than you realize:

Choose your words wisely: Learn about the impact your words can have on those with mental illnesses.

Words are very powerful.

  • When we say someone is "crazy" or "that's totally mental" we're perpetuating stereotypes.
  • Avoid the verb "suffers" when discussing mental illness. Instead, choose, "lives with mental illness" or "is affected by mental illness."
  • Use "person first" vocabulary. When we say a person is schizophrenic, we make their mental illness fully define their identity. Instead, be clear that this is a disease that individuals manage and live with -- "He is living with schizophrenia."
  • There are many phrases and terms; "crazy," "nuts", "psycho", "schiz", "retard" and "lunatic" that may seem insignificant, but really aren't.

While there may be times when it is too challenging or simply not possible to politely correct someone else's insensitive use of language, you can always watch your own.

For more information on how you can help:

  • Visit Lets.org, an organization that works with schools to create clubs and implement peer-to-peer training to increase mental health literacy.
  • Read Elyn Saks' book, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.
  • Watch this powerful PSA directed by Ron Howard and filmed at NYC's Grand Central station:

For more by Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.

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