Ending stigma associated with mental health problems…

Up CloseToday, actress and humanitarian, Glenn Close will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. Yesterday afternoon I was lucky to be able to attend a lecture that she gave at the university which was based on the work that she has been doing with Bring Change 2 Mind– an organization she founded to help reduce stigma associated with mental health problems.

My first notice of Glenn Close was when she was in the movie The Big Chill – a film made in 1983 and also starring other favourites of mine, William Hurt and Kevin Kline. I saw the movie in the Dream Theatre in Monterey, California. The theatre was small and the seats were actually from cars – big and bulky. They gave you the feeling that you were at a drive-in – the perfect venue to see this movie. I have vivid memories of that evening etched indellibly somewhere in my brain. The Big Chill will remain a favourite movie of mine,more for the venue than the film and certainly for a very attractive Glenn Close.

But I digress.

Although she alluded to some of her movie and acting experiences in her talk, it was really about the work she has been doing to try to reduce stigma associated with mental illness. Some of her work is with a Queen’s professor, Dr Heather Stewart who holds the Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen’s.

The talk was very personal and often touching. Close has a sister who suffers from Bipolar Illness and a nephew who has Schizophrenia. For years, they went untreated. Everyone just thought they were “difficult” or acting out. Her sister had two suicide attempts as a teen. The family was fed up with their aberrant behaviour. In time, they realized the root of the problem was much deeper.

Close related the statistic that 2 of 3 people in North America with mental illness avoid getting treatment, often because of the stigma attached to their problem. She also said that one in four of us is touched by significant mental illness in their friends, family or themselves. None of us are immune, or so separated from people suffering from Depression, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Illness, PTSD or any other significant mental illness.

The gist of her talk – we have to accept mental illness like we do Diabetes or Cardiovascular Disease, not make it shameful or hidden and encourage access to appropriate care for people who suffer from it.

Glenn Close answers questions from an audience member with hearing impairment. He had to get close so they could converse and she engaged him one-on-one.

Glenn Close answers questions from an audience member with hearing impairment. He had to get close so they could converse and she engaged him one-on-one.

As a Health Care professional, I have to wonder if our system is actually up to this task. We often talk about “difficult” patients – people that the system has trouble dealing with because of their manipulative behaviour, poor compliance, anger issues or being demanding. I wonder how many of these “difficult” patients suffer from mental illness. How many of our patients who are non-compliant, aggressive and drug seeking actually have depressive illness or PTSD? How many of our patients with Eating Disorders have been victims of abuse in the past – sexual or emotional? If they or their problems seem “difficult” to us, how “difficult” must it be to be them?

And how are these patients often portrayed? Check out this short Public Service Announcement made by Glenn Close and her professional colleagues from the crew of the TV series “Damages”. ( Close revealed that the crew donated their time to make this short promo film after one of their own committed suicide… and none of them recognized his depression.)

Last month I was admiring the courage and openness of Angelina Jolie. This week it is Glenn Close. And it is not their celebrity that awes me, it is their determination to use that celebrity to bring notice and change to social issues that are often overlooked or hidden. They are putting their talents and good fortune to work to improve well-being. I am impressed with their integrity and openness and their determination to “do something” about important social issues.

Read more about the work Glenn Close is doing to reduce stigma in mental illness here: BC2M_Billboard_B

Movie stars seem to loom “large” in our imagination. Glenn Close is actually surprisingly petite – probably not more than five feet four in height. I discovered that she shares her birthday with my brother (March 19) and my year (1947). As with Angelina Jolie, I am available for lunch any time.

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