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The fear of people with mental illness is problematic, says actor Glenn Close in a CBC interview.

Borne of ignorance and usually misrepresented in the media, most people associate mental illness with violence and shun both those suffering with it and their families. Ironically, support and friendship are key ingredients in recovery and management.

Close says her nephew was diagnosed with a disorder as a teenager and spent two years in a psychiatric hospital, but when he came out, he had lost all of his friends. Close’s sister Jessie wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until decades later because she wouldn’t pursue it for fear that her young daughter would lose friends as well.

“One day when we were visiting my mother,” says Close, “my sister Jessie came up to me and said, ‘I need your help. I can’t stop thinking about killing myself.’ Even though her son Calen had already been diagnosed as living with schizoaffective disorder, we were absolutely clueless about what Jessie was struggling with. That was a huge and shocking wake-up call for me, and it started my journey into the education and awareness around mental illness.”

It’s because of the stigma that the afflicted don’t disclose it, and why people don’t realize that the person at the next desk or on their board of directors could be one of the 20 percent with mental illness. Close says the reaction to her Bring Change 2 Mind was overwhelming because people suddenly felt recognized instead of isolated, and felt the relief and hope that comes with the connection to a community of families experiencing the same thing.

“It’s astounding to me,” says Close. “It’s something our family talks about, how really clueless we were about mental illness. We had no vocabulary for it. When Calen was diagnosed he was 19, which is very common for that kind of illness. Jessie, however, had always been known as ‘the wild one, the irresponsible one, the one that couldn’t hold down a job’, and we come from a hardheaded tradition where you’re just supposed to pull up your socks and get on with it. She really fell through the cracks in our family because of our ignorance. She wasn’t properly diagnosed until she was 51 years old. What hurt she went through, what her children went through, she lost a lot of years because of that.”

Mental illnesses are chronic illnesses, so learning to manage the day-to-day symptoms and learning to live beyond the label, that the person is not the diagnosis and should not be defined by it, is essential.

“Have the courage to talk about it,” says Close. “Attention must be paid.”

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