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  • Up Close and Personal: The Stigma of Mental Illness
Nov 2010
Nov. 15, 2010 — A word to the wise: If you see Glenn Close in the security line at the airport, don’t approach her and say in a small, almost mousy voice: “Excuse me, are you who I think you are?”

It’s not that she doesn’t like to meet fans of the many movies in which she’s appeared — The Big Chill, Fatal Attraction and 101 Dalmations, among others. Something tells me she’s more than gracious about such things. No, the problem is, the question sends her into paroxysms of fear and uncertainty, as it inevitably raises another, existentially loaded one: namely, “Who does this person think I am?”

Close told this story by way of introducing herself to the Society for Neuroscience — to a capacity crowd in Ballroom 20 of the San Diego Convention Center. She opened the Society’s 40th annual meeting on Saturday morning with a talk titled “Bringing Change to Mind on Mental Illness,” this year’s entry in the Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society series.

But the question — who does this person think I am? — echoed throughout her remarks as she addressed head-on the stigma still attached to mental illness. Those who suffer from conditions like bipolar disorder and PTSD might ask it about family, friends and colleagues who harbor misconceptions about people with mental illness. Indeed, as we saw later in the session, they might sometimes ask it about themselves.

Last year, after spending the better part of a decade watching and helping her sister and nephew seek treatment for different disorders, Close launched, a website aiming to combat the stigma associated with mental illness. She knew firsthand the power of this stigma. She and her sister came from a “stiff upper lip, Connecticut Yankee family with no vocabulary for mental illness,” despite widespread depression and even a suicide.

And even as she considered becoming an advocate for those with mental disorders, she said, humble in the recollection, she worried about how it might affect her career.

Glenn Close opened the 40th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience with the stigma of mental illness. Last year, Close established to help combat this stigma. The launch of the site was accompanied by the release of a public service announcement directed by Ron Howard and set to the John Mayer song “Say.”

Unable to keep quiet, though, she established the BringChange2Mind website with the help of a number of others. The website provides “quick and easy access” to information about mental disorders and provides a community where mental health “consumers” can share experiences and simply take comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone.

The fact is, Close said, that the stigma attached to mental illness is still a potent force in society. While efforts to educate the public as to the neurological basis of the disorders have proved successful, studies have shown that, in terms of removing the stigma, this strategy can take us only so far. Recent surveys have revealed that accepting findings of a neurological basis does not translate to lower levels of stigma.

This makes it all the more important, she said, to find ways to attack these “persistent and toxic beliefs” about mental illness.

A Family Affair

Having completed her talk, Close turned over the podium to her nephew, Calen Pick, and then to her sister, Jesse Close. Pick, an artist, was hospitalized as a teenager following a series of psychotic episodes, or breaks. Here, he provided a raw, yet almost lyrical, description of the breaks — believing he was Jesus, for example, and not understanding why an old man with a beard wasn’t intervening as hospital guards struggled to pin him to the ground. The man simply stood there, he said, ignoring his pleas for help. Images of his paintings flashed across the screen as Pick spoke — haltingly, rarely looking up from his notes.

Jesse Close, Glenn’s sister and Calen’s mother, was the next to speak. Jesse, a writer, was equal parts funny and affecting as she talked about her manic depressive disorder and recalled the “mad but resilient lineage” of the Close family. Her great-uncle was deemed a lunatic, she said, savoring the word even as she spoke it, and eventually sent to a sanitorium. The family has tried to trace what happened there, but there are no records to be found. The man’s story simply goes dead.

You might ask: What does this have to do with neuroscience and with the research community in general? First, as Glenn Close said to those assembled in Ballroom 20 on Saturday: you will be the ones whose discoveries are communicated to the public, whose findings will help to advance the drugs used to treat the disorders.

But this is not just a story of science coming to the aid of the rest of society. Because of the size of the room, attendees submitted questions and comments on note cards, which were then read aloud. The first of these came from an audience member who had suffered panic attacks since childhood. It simply thanked Close and the others for the work they are doing. One of the moderators noted some eight additional questions and comments from people affected by mental illness.

In response to this, Close recalled a visit to a lab at a “very prestigious” university, where she spoke at length with researchers about their work with mental disorders. Afterward, one of the investigators, a young woman, approached her in the ladies’ room. The woman was shaking. She hugged Close and explained that she experienced serious depression “but I haven’t been able to tell anyone in the lab because I fear it would undermine my productivity.”

“We have to accept that mental illness is a global family affair,” Close said, adding a call for empathy. “What happens to us affects all of you. Honor that connection, and the stigma will become a thing of the past.”

The session concluded with a discussion between Glenn and Jesse Close, Pick, Society for Neuroscience President Michael Goldberg and NIMH Director Tom Insel. The conversation covered a range of topics, from the history of anti-stigma campaigns to the impact of current health care laws on the treatment of mental disorders. 

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