In London to promote a mental health initiative, Glenn Close reveals the challenges her own family is facing
'When my sister, Jessie, was seven,” Glenn Close recalls, “she would rub a finger between her thumb and forefinger until it was raw and crusty. She would keep on rubbing until she was in pain. Looking back, that should have been an indication that something was going on.”
That something turned out to be bipolar 1 disorder, also known as manic depression, which causes serious shifts in mood, energy and behaviour. Close’s younger sister was diagnosed at the age of 47. “Jessie said to me one day: 'I can’t stop thinking about killing myself. I need help.’”
It was a tragedy, Close reflects sadly, that she wasn’t diagnosed before then. “But nobody in our family had a clue. I feel a real sense of shame that I didn’t pay more attention at the time.”
It is to spare other families that heartache and shame – a word Close feels is too often associated with mental illness – that the 66-year-old, six-time Oscar-nominated star of Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons founded the anti-stigma campaign, BringChange 2Mind, in 2009. Boosted by the famous faces who’ve gone public on their mental health issues – Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Oprah Winfrey, who this week spoke of a recent nervous breakdown – Close and Jessie, now 56, have been engaged in a campaign of stigma‑busting ever since.
Along with Jessie’s son, Calen, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, characterised by disordered thought processes and abnormal emotional responses, their methods include speaking engagements, TV public service announcements and a hard-hitting advert, Schizo: the Movie. Last week, they joined forces in London with Time to Change – a British programme that challenges mental health discrimination – for a global meeting of like-minded campaigners.
Jessie is the youngest of the four Close children, who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. Their father was a surgeon who became involved in an extreme conservative missionary movement, Moral Re‑Armament, and he and their mother were absent for long stretches. “Nobody was consistently around to watch what Jessie was going through,” Close has said.
Jessie left school in ninth grade, married at 16 and got pregnant soon after. “All of those things were signs, of course,” Close tells me. “But back then her behaviour was called 'acting out’, 'rebelling’ or 'being perverse’.” Even after her sister’s first suicide attempt, at 16, the actress admits that she “just didn’t put two and two together”.
“Then Jessie married somebody she never should have married and was living in LA. That was when the second suicide attempt happened. We were horrified. At that point, my mother and I went to rescue her.” Despite the following years of alcoholism and depression, the idea that Jessie might be suffering from a mental illness was never considered. It wasn’t until 2001 and her third suicide attempt – which this time involved a gun – that Jessie sought help, first through AA, and then at the McLean hospital in Massachusetts, where Calen had been in treatment for two years.
“That was where they finally diagnosed her. But you know what?” Close says with a mirthless laugh. “I still heard my parents wondering whether she 'enjoyed’ being mentally ill.”
Today, Close is intent on breaking down such prejudice. “People believe that those with mental illnesses are frightening. They don’t want them living next to them or dating their son or daughter. They don’t want them teaching their child and they don’t want them in the workplace.”
Although strides have been made over the past decade – in February a Mental Health Discrimination Bill was passed in the UK that put an end to laws preventing people with mental health problems from carrying out jury service or becoming a company director – Close believes that the stigma remains.
Ask the actress how we go about changing that, and her measured tones become more dynamic. “That’s the huge challenge. The best way for a person to change their behaviour towards mental illness is to meet someone who is suffering from one.
“When my nephew, Calen, wanted to date Meg – now his wife – she had to tell her parents that a boy with schizoaffective disorder wanted to ask her out. Initially they were horrified. Then they met him,” she smiles. “But how do you get that one-on-one effect with whole populations? We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are not our illnesses. If we had cancer or diabetes, we wouldn’t be defined by that, would we? But it’s ultimately about ignorance – and fear.
“We need to be able to say out loud all the various disorders of mental illness and understand them. 'Schizophrenia’ is a very frightening word. So is 'bipolar’ or 'depression’, even.”
Hollywood does little to reassure the public on the subject of mental health, sensationalising it to gain higher audience figures. Last June, Close made headlines when she said that she regretted feeding the stigma by playing Alex Forrest, the unstable, homicidal anti-heroine of the 1980s hit, Fatal Attraction.
She spoke to two psychiatrists when preparing for the role. “What seems odd is that mental illness was never mentioned,” she says now. “In fact, the ending was changed to turn Alex into a psychopath, when really she wasn’t one. She was more self-destructive. That is something that Hollywood does for plot reasons, and it was probably the reason the movie became such a hit, because the disturbing person was removed in the end.
“It catered to the cliché of what we do when somebody is mentally ill: we remove them.” She adds sarcastically: “Because, of course, they all become violent. Hollywood always has to find a protagonist or an antagonist, and either it’s a Nazi or a Taliban leader or a psychopath.” But wouldn’t it be dangerous to avoid representing the mentally ill altogether?
“Absolutely,” she says. “But it might be interesting to explain a little bit more about it. In Fatal Attraction, Alex had this weird relationship with her father that was never explained. One psychiatrist told me that the character had been a victim of incest at an early age, which might have triggered all the psychological difficulties she went through.”
Hollywood aside, Close’s mission becomes more challenging every time a mentally ill loner is violent in real life. This happens all too frequently in America. In December, Adam Lanza killed 20 schoolchildren and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Last week, Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at Washington Navy Yard. Both were said to have suffered from mental health issues.
“I’ve been told that [Alexis] did try to reach out to people and had been hearing voices,” says Close. “That should be a red flag. That somebody who is hearing voices still has that security clearance… Somebody should have gone to the nearest mental health office and said: 'This man needs help.’
“Hopefully, we will come to a point where people who are a danger will be spotted before it’s too late. We have to take care of our own. It’s imperative that our family doctors are educated about mental illness and that friends and families understand that it’s something they should be open about.”
Things may be better for Glenn and her family now, but daily life is still an exercise in caution. “We’ve learnt to have antennae out for changes of season when [Jessie] can get manic or depressed. We listen for changes in her voice, and we know what sort of a medication schedule she needs. It’s about learning to live with chronic illness.”
And her nephew, Calen? “He’s a different person; he just blows me away. He recently told me, 'I had to figure out what was clarity and what wasn’t’,” and here there’s the smallest crack in Close’s voice. “ 'Then I would cling to those moments of clarity until more would come – and still more. Now, after 11 years, I finally feel like my brain is healing.’ ”