Glenn Close, sister bring mental-illness message to Akron

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Glenn Close (right) and her sister Jessie Close.

When Glenn Close comes to the University of Akron, it will be more as a sister than as an actress.

Sure, people know her as a winner of Emmys (for Damages and Serving in Slience) and Tonys (including for Sunset Boulevard), as well as a six-time Oscar nominee (Fatal Attraction, The Big Chill, Dangerous Liaisons, Albert Nobbs and more). But she is also co-founder of Bring Change 2 Mind, an organization aimed at ending the stigma, discrimination and misinformation about people with mental illnesses. The group’s goals will also be the aim of a talk, Mental Illness: A Family Affair, with Glenn and her younger sister, Jessie, in E.J. Thomas Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Jessie is bipolar, and her son Calen has been diagnosed with schizo-effective disorder. Indeed, according to the Bring Change 2 Mind website, one in six adults has a brain-related illness like depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.

“Mental illnesses are treatable through medication and psychosocial therapies — allowing those who live with them the opportunity to lead full and productive lives,” the site says. Both Jessie and Calen have been treated for more than a decade.

That’s not necessarily how pop-culture portrayals present people with mental illness. One Bring Change 2 Mind public-service announcement — inspired by a similar British ad — begins like a horror-movie trailer, with the title Schizo and the phrase “He’s amongst us.” But it moves on to a peaceful domestic scene with Calen.

“Sorry to disappoint you if you’re expecting a lunatic on a rampage,” he says.

In the UA event, Glenn will talk about the family’s dealing with mental illnesses, Jessie in turn will talk about her own experiences, as she has for the last four years, and how long it took to figure out her condition; Glenn said Jessie was not properly diagnosed until she was about 50, and only after a dramatic confession to Glenn.

“She came up to me one day when we were visiting my mother and said, ‘I can’t stop thinking about killing myself. I need help,’ ’’ Glenn recalled. “We got her help, and it led to her being properly diagnosed. But it’s shocking to me how little I knew of what she was going through.”

As with some families, part of the reason was physical distance.

“I lived in New York and she lives in Montana,’’ Glenn said. ‘‘It wasn’t like I saw her every day, or talked to her every day. I was actually quite disconnected from her. And it easily could have had a very tragic ending. But she was brave enough to ask for help, which was the first step.”

At the same time, signs of mental illness may be masked by other issues, such as the pangs of adolescence.

“Now that you look back, I can think of evidence when she was quite young,” Glenn said. “She was wild and irresponsible and headstrong. We thought she was acting out, when she actually needed help.” Similarly, Calen was in his teens when diagnosed and, Glenn said, “that’s the point when a lot of kids are rebellious teenagers.”

But Glenn says her family was largely clueless about mental illness, and did not talk about it before Jessie’s diagnosis. And she said, “I think our family represents millions of other families in the same position.”

Everyone, she said, needs to get “much more sophisticated about behavior, and unafraid to ask people if they need help. It’s still so stigmatized that it’s very hard for people to talk about it.”

Jessie does talk, and very well, Glenn said.

“She has a wonderful way of articulating what that journey has been for her.” When she thought about forming Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn said her first call was to Jessie, to ask her to talk about her own illness “on a national platform. And she said yes. That was an incredibly courageous thing to do. It was quite something, I’m just in awe of that kind of bravery.

“The cool thing is, we’ve since learned that becoming an advocate is a huge step in your own recovery. I’ve seen it in Jessie, and I’ve seen it in Calen. When he first came out of the hospital, he was always wearing dark glasses and had to excuse himself from company because it was so overwhelming. And last month he went alone to Winnipeg, Canada, and gave a 45-minute speech.”

But even as people go through ordinary daily lives that happen to include mental illness, there’s still the issue of how entertainment media deal with it. Too often, she said, terrible behavior is rationalized by claiming the character is crazy.

Some people might look at one of Glenn’s favorite roles, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, and wonder if that was a case of mental illness. But Glenn has said that, when she was researching the role, she talked to psychiatrists — who never mentioned that Alex might be mentally ill. And where the film’s original ending suggested something tragically wrong — Alex kills herself — Glenn recalled how test audiences wanted more catharsis, “that blood is shed and order is restored. The ending was redone with more action and, for Alex, more nastiness.

“Her behavior is never explained,” Glenn said. “She comes across as an evil person to give the audience what they wanted.”

But Close knows what she now wants.

“I’ve turned down scripts” because of their portrayal of mental illness, she said. “I won’t do a script that makes someone who is perceived as mentally ill into a violent, bad person. I’ve become so known for educating people about mental illness, and not perpetrating the cliches, that there’s no way I can morally do something like that.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog. www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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