STYLE

Glenn Close wows mental health experts with campaign against stigma

06/04/2012 12:50 EDT | Updated 08/04/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - It's been 25 years since Glenn Close starred in "Fatal Attraction," but the film still poses a dilemma for the star who was in Ottawa on Monday to campaign against stigma in mental health.

The movie, about a woman who stalks a man to the point of extreme violence, perpetuated stereotypes about mentally ill people, portraying them as violent and scary, she said.

That bothers her, now that she has become an activist to fight the very prejudices that her best-known movie — and many, many others — project.

But it was wildly popular, and she understands why.

"It's great entertainment," she said in an interview with The Canadian Press, accompanied by her sister Jessie Close, and her nephew, Calen Pick.

"It's very hard to portray mental illness in a way that is both entertaining and authentic, that doesn't perpetrate that stigma, especially people with a certain type of behaviour. I'm fascinated how you could.

"It's always been one of the devices, one of the plot devices that's been used, who knows, forever. A very long time."

Both Pick and Jessie Close have suffered from serious mental illnesses, compelling the movie star to take a high-profile role in dispelling myths about mental health problems.

But they saw "Fatal Attraction" before they had been diagnosed, and didn't have a problem with it back then — underlining the difficulty in fully understanding the nuances of mental illness until it affects someone personally.

"I didn't put two and two together as far as mental health," said Jessie Close, sitting close to her sister on a couch in an Ottawa hotel room, her black top flecked with hair from her tiny dog that accompanies her on speaking engagements.

Glenn Close played Alex, the central character who would not let go of a married man with whom she'd had an affair.

As she sought to understand Alex, Close said she developed "a deep empathy" for the character, realizing she was mentally ill and in need of medication and understanding. Close took the initiative of adding in a scene in which Alex gouges her own leg in a moment of self-hate.

The original ending of the movie had Alex committing suicide, Close said. But when the film's management tested that ending with focus groups, the viewers were unhappy. They wanted a more severe punishment for Alex.

"She was so evil and manipulative that the majority thought her suicide was not punishment enough."

Close protested for two weeks, not wanting to betray the character of Alex.

"When I said yes to the script, she was self-destructive, rather than psychopathic....I think now I would have researched her in a very different way."

But the finale was replaced, and Alex was shot in the end — to the great delight of audiences around the world.

"And 'bunny boiler' became part of our lexicon," Close said dryly in a speech on Monday morning, referring to the scene in which Alex cooks the pet rabbit belonging to the child of her obsession.

But mental illness is far more than a fictional topic for the actress, a Hollywood fixture known for her roles in films like "The Big Chill," "Dangerous Liaisons" and her latest, "Albert Nobbs," as well as TV shows like "Damages" and "The Shield."

When her sister became suicidal and didn't know how to handle her uncontrollable mood swings, she looked to Glenn Close for help. A voice in her head was swirling around and around, telling her — alternately — to kill herself, or to speak out and get help.

"So I said something and got help," said Jessie.

The sisters took their concerns straight to their mother, and together they checked Jessie into the hospital.

She realized her family had a long history of mental illness cloaked in secrecy and denial — a great uncle who drank himself to death, another uncle who shot himself.

"Because of her and Calen, because of great Uncle Jean, and poor Uncle Harry....I decided to use my name and image to focus on the eradication of the stigma and prejudice and discrimination that I came to realize was such a hurtful burden to beloved members of my family," Close said.

"And my education began. Little did I know that it is the last, perhaps most challenging, civil and human rights issue of our time."

What astounds her, she said, is that mental illness is so pervasive, and yet so secret. Even people with mental illness have stigma against themselves — a barrier to reaching out for help, she said.

"Their illnesses can be managed. They can achieve their potential and be respected as co-workers, neighbours, friends, spouses, as productive members of their communities," Close said.

Indeed, about one in five Canadians has a mental illness every single year, said David Goldbloom, a psychiatrist and chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The commission is hosting the three-day anti-stigma conference, which Goldbloom said is the largest of its kind, ever.

The conference comes just weeks after the commission finally published its long-awaited national mental health strategy, which is to serve as a blueprint for governments, business, health-care professionals and individuals to recognize and treat mental illness in a far more efficient way.

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt also spoke her battle against post-partum depression and urged employers to recognize the benefits of confronting mental illness in the workplace.

She wants to see companies adopt the voluntary national standards set out by the mental health strategy, and make good use of the tools her department has developed, through the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

The federal government has given no indication that it is willing to increase funding for mental health in a meaningful way, despite the commission's call for billions more for the system.

But Close said her experience in Ottawa on Monday showed that the mental health community in Canada is more advanced at handling mental illness than in her home country of the United States.

Close and other participants at the conference steered clear of the funding topic, however, emphasizing instead the effectiveness of simple, individual acts of kindness and empathy.

"We need heroes like my family members. It's easier said than done for sure," said Close. "It's the little wins that count."

MORE:cpStyle