Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mental Battles

Remember the TV ad where several people congregate in New York’s Grand Central Station, each wearing a bright white T-shirt displaying a message revealing startling and very personal information: “bipolar,” “sister,” “schizophrenia,” “mother,” “post traumatic stress disorder,” “battle buddy.” 

That ad was the creation of actress Glenn Close, who wore a “sister” T-shirt as she stood beside her real-life sister, Jessie, whose T-shirt proclaimed “bipolar.”

Mental illness affects many families, maybe even our own family, was the telling point of the public service ad campaign that Glenn Close launched three years ago, accompanied by a website (, facebook page (, and interviews on TV talk shows.

The Emmy award-winning TV and movie actress walks the walk, as well as talks the talk. Recently, she posted a You tube video ( call to action for Americans to join her in NAMI Walks around the nation. NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "NAMIWalks are a new grassroots dimension for the campaign," Glenn Close said in a 2010 news release. "It is a natural fit. Last year, I was proud to participate in NAMI Maine's walk. I know about NAMI's work in local communities through the help it has given my own family members."

A few years ago, the widely acclaimed actress got a double shock—first one and then another family member was diagnosed with a mental illness.

“Jessie Close didn't know she was living with a Mood disorder until she was 47 years old. Up until then, the younger sister of Hollywood legend, Glenn Close, endured depression, suicide attempts and alcoholism for as long as she can remember,” an insightful article in Psychology Today noted last year. “While on a quest to diagnose behavioral changes in her teenage son, Calen, Jessie found answers to long-asked questions regarding her own life experience. She discovered that she had Bipolar Disorder. Her son, meanwhile, was living with Schizoaffective Disorder.”

What happened next, as reported in Psychology Today, is a case study in the positive aspects of grassroots organizing in helping people with severe problems improve their lives. This is Jesse’s take on subsequent events:

“Glenn has not only been a sister but has stood by me during my trials. None of us knew about Bipolar Disorder when I was young, but she knew something was wrong. She stuck by me, no matter what. She flew out to Salt Lake City to be with me when I was diagnosed. BringChange2Mind came about a few years after I asked her to help Calen and me with the stigma attached to mental illness. She volunteered her time at Fountain House in NYC to get a handle on what was needed and how she could help. She grew out of Calen's and my pain, the pain of mental illness. … To get the attention we needed Glenn went to Ron Howard of 'A Beautiful Mind' and he donated his time to shoot a  Public Service Announcement in Grand Central Station in October of 2009. The PSA was a great hit and played all across the country. Once the PSA was launched, the focus shifted to helping others. Go to our website and see, at the top of the page, a button that says Find Help. We have volunteers standing by and pledge to get back to you with information you may need within 48 hours. There are also important numbers there like Suicide Prevention.”  

Jesse Close and her son, Calen, became activists and spokespersons for the change they seek, as well. As Jesse stated in that interview,” being our own advocates is important. No one can stand up for your dignity like yourself. No one can live your life but yourself. We may have people who love us and help us but loving and helping ourselves is what's most important. You might think, ‘Well, if things were different I could...’  - but they're not. Standing up for yourself is a big deal.”

Adding further insight, the Psychology Today interview with Jesse Close was conducted by Deborah Serani, “a psychologist and psychoanalyst who lives with depression,” as the magazine noted. Here’s an exchange that provides a deeper perspective:
Serani: For me, I can recall the exact moment that I knew I had to talk publicly about Unipolar Depression. What was it that made you decide to be more vocal about your experiences with Bipolar Disorder?
Close: Before BringChange2Mind I had my own 'one on one' anti-stigma campaign going. I would talk to anyone who was interested. But as far as public speaking - I had no idea that sharing my experience would benefit the people that it has. Our first invitation was to the annual Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Conference. After all was said and done I got off the stage and was stunned by how much I liked speaking to the crowd.  It's taken off since then. 
Jesse Close has also found her voice as a writer, often sharing her experiences in blog posts on the Bring Change 2 Mind website. Here’s how she described her sense of growth, in a recent letter published on the American Mental Health Foundation website: 

“Life is much better now. A proper diagnosis and treatment helped tremendously, and so did having an outlet to share my experiences and my stories with others. That outlet is Bring Change 2 Mind Stories, a section of our website where you can read about people's experiences with mental illness and share your own. …

“Sharing my story on the Stories page was incredibly uplifting. I gained courage and strength from the support of the Bring Change 2 Mind community, many of whom I did not know before joining. I felt empowered, finally able to talk openly and freely about my illness.

“More importantly, after sharing my story and reading other submissions, I saw that I was not alone in what I went through before recovery began. I was an alcoholic but found AA and am now ten years sober. I would become so frightened that I would hide in my closet. But, worst of all, I became suicidal during my bouts with depression.

“Sharing your stories and experiences, whether you are living with a mental illness yourself or are close to someone who is, can give you the same strength and empowerment that it gave me. You may also give someone you've never met the strength to speak out.”

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