Making the point that mental illness is a matter for all families, award-winning actress Glenn Close was joined by her sister Jessie and a nephew to give a joint public lecture at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, this year in San Diego. [see SfN video of the lecture]
One in six adults, one in four families, currently has a diagnosable mental illness, said Close, “and mine happens to be one of them.” After volunteering at Fountain House as a way to learn more about mental illness, she worked with the group to set up BringChange2Mind.org, a national anti-stigma campaign. The campaign launched last year (see its video, below).
Close gave the most-polished speech, including movie clips as a prop for a story about being recognized at the airport, but it was her sister, Jessie Close, and Jessie’s son, artist Calen Pick, whose untrained voices and deeply personal stories brought tears to the eyes of the brain scientists and others filling the cavernous lecture hall at the San Diego Convention Center.
Pick described how he felt when he had his biggest psychotic break more than a decade ago and was “benevolently coerced” into checking himself into a locked mental unit for two weeks. “In reality, I could not rely on my mind.”
As he spoke about feeling that he was two people, an angel and a devil, the giant screens in the lecture hall showed two of his self-portraits in reds and oranges, one contented-looking, the other stretched in despair.
Jesse Close described her decades-long road to proper diagnosis in 2004 and then effective treatment, including two suicide attempts in her teens. “For the majority of my life, I destroyed nearly everything I cared about. Now I’m 57 years old and so very glad to be alive.” Part of her therapy is Snits, a lap dog who “keeps me calm, with no unpleasant side-effects.”
For her, there are four stages of grief: denial, anger, acceptance, and advocacy. “Appearing here is my advocacy; it’s taken 11 years. You can’t hurry change.”
They would like to speed up public acceptance of people with mental illnesses, though. Most Americans now know that mental illness is brain disease, but it hasn’t seemed to change the stigma associated with the illnesses or the people who have them, surprising some advocates. “Obviously, the message hasn’t worked,” Glenn Close said. Thinking that perhaps something more active would, BringChange2Mind has come out with declarations of principles, one for “consumers” (medical-speak for people with mental illnesses) and one for their family members and friends and everyone else. By inviting people to pledge “to reduce stigma in myself and in others by being open about living with mental illness, naming it out loud and raising people’s awareness,” the group hopes to foster change nationwide.
Each year, the Society for Neuroscience invites one "unlikely" person to give a public lecture, called the "Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society;" one year it was architect Frank Gehry, on the neuroscience of architecture, another year choreographer Mark Morris, whose dance group offers workshops for people with Parkinson's. The topic this year appeared to have the deepest impact yet.
Even brain scientists can feel the sting of this stigma. Glenn Close said as part of her group’s work she has toured quite a few neuroscience labs. After one tour, she was in the bathroom when one of the lab’s post-doctoral students came in. The woman was shaking and she hugged her, Close recalled. “She said, ‘I have serious depression and I haven’t been able to tell anyone in this lab,’” because they would think it would affect her productivity.
As Calen Pick put it: “You can make the choice to be afraid. Or not.”