Changing Minds About Mental Illness

When my husband’s child psychiatry office received the spring 2010 issue of the Advocate (a magazine put out by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI), I was interested to see that the front cover featured actress Glenn Close and her sister, Jessie. They’re each wearing white T-shirts – Glenn’s says “sister” and Jessie’s says “bipolar.”

I read the story inside, and learned that Glenn Close collaborated on the start-up of a non-profit organization that aims to decrease the stigma associated with mental illness and its treatment. Called “Bring Change 2 Mind,” the impetus for Close’s involvement was her intimate awareness of the unique challenges facing people with mental illness – awareness sharpened by the fact that her sister lives with bipolar disorder, and her sister’s son (Close’s nephew) has schizophrenia.

I was intrigued by the story in the magazine, and went immediately to the organization’s Web site, where I watched a public service announcement filmed in Grand Central Station by well-known director Ron Howard (also of Opie fame). It’s a moving and powerful piece, in which Glenn Close and several of her family members appear, along with maybe a hundred or so other volunteers. Pairs or groups of people are shown, strolling through crowds in the iconic train station, wearing T-shirts with simple lettering proclaiming their diagnosis (“bipolar,” “schizophrenic,” “post-traumatic stress disorder“) or their relationship to someone living with mental illness (“sister,” “mother,” “friend,” “battle buddy”). With the exception of Glenn Close, these aren’t actors – they’re real people living with mental illness – either their own, or their loved ones’.

Bring Change 2 Mind wants to call our attention to the fact that at least one out of every six adults and one out of every ten children are living with mental illness. As Close’s sister states: “And we face a stigma that can be as painful as the disease itself.”

So not only do people with mental illness suffer from the effects of their disease – a disease that affects their brain, their mind, the center of their personality and identity, the pathway to perceiving the world around them and relating to the people in their lives – they also suffer from our society’s image of mental illness. That image casts people with these conditions as dangerous, untrustworthy, scary, weird, unpredictable, threatening. And the stigma associated with mental illness can prevent people from reaching out to get help for themselves.

Go on to watch the public service announcement, and to watch other short interviews with people living with mental illness and the people who love and support them. Bring Change 2 Mind wants us all to educate ourselves about mental illness, to separate fact from fiction, science from myth; to seek help or reach out to those who need help; to monitor our words, our attitudes, and our actions in order to avoid further entrenching mental illness in the mire of stigma.

As Glenn Close says at the end of the PSA: “Change a mind about mental illness, and you can change a life.”

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