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Glenn Close's family sheds light on mental illness stigma

9:03 PM, May 19, 2013   |    comments
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Calen Pick has schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He was 15 when he realized something was wrong, 16 when he checked himself into a lockdown mental health facility, 18 when he got out and 28 when his sanity touched down on solid ground.

Now 31, Calen got married last year and, along with his mother, Jessie Close, who is bipolar, and his aunt, six-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close, is working toward ending stigma and discrimination of the mentally ill through the foundation BringChange2Mind, which Glenn founded in 2009.

"The most powerful way to change someone's view is to meet them," says Glenn. "People who do come out and talk about mental illness, that's when healing can really begin. You can lead a productive life."

Jessie and Calen, who are both easily unsettled by loud noises and large crowds, took the issue of stigma front and center, literally. In 2010, with Calen wearing a T-shirt with "Schizo" printed on it and his mother wearing one that said "Bipolar," they walked into Grand Central Station in New York City and stood there to film a PSA directed by Ron Howard.

"It was scary. People just stared at us," says Calen. "But I think of myself as an intact soul, so for me to put myself out there like that, I hope initiates more people to talk about it. Just talking about mental illness would do it a great service."

Their effort seems to have paid off: that PSA, which also features John Mayer's Say, has aired in 800 million households.

According to BringChange2Mind, one in four families is affected by mental illness. When Jessie started showing signs in her early twenties, bipolar disorder was largely unknown. "At that time, it was really common to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Then I was given my first treatment in my late forties and finally, the correct diagnosis - and medication - when I was 51," Jessie says. "I'll be 60 in July and I grieved for those lost years. There were careers I couldn't handle because of it. I wish I was able to get help earlier."

In their second PSA, Schizo, which will be out May 21, Calen steps into the spotlight. The PSA plays like a trailer for a horror film, ending with the camera shooting down a dark hallway, a door opening and Calen standing in a kitchen, pouring himself a cup of coffee. "I'm sorry to disappoint you," he says in the final scene.

"When he got out of that mental health facility, (Calen) never took off his dark sunglasses, which helped him be around large groups of people. Once Jessie came to visit me in New York City and she had to leave a restaurant we were in because it was too noisy and she went to sit on a stoop to collect herself," says Glenn. "So that (Jessie and Calen) were brave enough to wear those T-shirts, standing in a place as busy and echo-ey as Grand Central Station, is miraculous."

That Calen and Jessie have stepped out from the shadows to share their experiences is a rarity; one that they hope will inspire not just people with mental illness to come forward, but policy makers to start putting laws in place to protect them and to put mental health care on parity with other health care.

"If you change policies, eventually that will affect what people think," says Bernice Pescosolido, an Indiana University professor who focuses on mental health care, stigma and suicide research. "There are two parts to mental literacy, one is knowledge and the other is what to do about it. That's where we need to make progress. How do we get through the door? Insurance doesn't address long-term help. And service isn't available everywhere, especially as you get to more rural areas."

The backbone of Calen's progress is the support from his family. "If our family had not supported Calen, he would have been caught up in that terrible cycle of jail, street, jail, street," says Glenn. "What do people do when they're in that cycle? I don't have a good answer to that."

Schizophrenia is not only the most serious of mental illnesses, but the most stigmatized. "Fear is lodged with people who don't know someone with mental illness. How you treat someone with cancer or diabetes is more accepting than someone with mental illness," says Pescosolido. "If you can see the entire person, not just the label, and the more people interact, then the more that the attitudes go away. Contact is a powerful predictor of greater tolerance."

For those first brutal years when Calen was psychotic, Jessie, despite also suffering from a serious mental illness, found herself at a loss as to how to handle her son's erratic behavior. "One afternoon, we were standing in the yard and he said that the TV antenna was put there to keep track of him," she recalls. "When he was overwhelmed, he'd rock, with his forearms tight against his thighs, his hair hanging down."

With a combination of talk therapy, careful medication and the support of his family, Calen pieced together his splintered sanity. "It was scary not knowing where to draw the line; my imagination just didn't know how to stop," he says. "It was like a free association of everything around me. Everything took a special meaning; it was thoughts building on thoughts and me trying to put reason to them. It was a good 10 years, every hour I was awake, I lived in hell."

As the psychiatric field and policymakers search for a solution, families and patients can find relief through organizations like BringChange2Mind. "I would love BringChange2Mind not have to be anymore, which is when people are talking about mental illness without shame or judgment," says Glenn. "It's about social inclusion and when people are enlightened then change can happen."

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