06/04/2012 03:16 EDT | Updated 06/04/2012 04:09 EDT

Glenn Close Speaks At 'Together Against Stigma' Mental Illness Conference (VIDEO)

OTTAWA -- Hollywood actress Glenn Close grew up in a typical stiff upper-lip Connecticut household where generations of family members suffered with mental illness but none ever acknowledged it, the award-winning Fatal Attraction star told an international conference on mental health stigma Monday.

“To us, mental illness didn’t exist,” Close told the 'Together Against Stigma' gathering in Ottawa, a conference billed as the largest of its kind.

“A great-uncle drank himself to death, but we were told it was because he had to live with our aunt Margaret. My mother’s half-brother was having lunch one day excused himself after the first course, went out into the garden and shot himself. He was known as poor uncle Harry,” Close told the attentive crowd.

“My wonderful maternal grandmother sighed a lot and had a habit of drawing the shades and lying on her beds for hours on end, but that was just the way she was. And my sister Jess was simply characterized as the ‘Wild One.’”

“So even with rampant family-wide depression, alcoholism and even a death by suicide, we remained inflexibly clueless,” Close said.

It wasn’t until her nephew, Calen Pick, and his nearly suicidal mother, Close’s sister Jess, were both diagnosed with mental illness that the actress and her family woke up to the problem.

“I realized that they were in a life and death battle with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder and were fighting to survive not only the symptoms of their illnesses but the terrible stigma that surrounded them,” said Close, the co-founder of Bring Change 2 Mind, a not-for-profit that seeks to erase the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. "They have up days and down days, but they are still here," she added with tears forming in her eyes.

Stigma is a major barrier that prevents people from seeking help for their mental health problems, said Dr. David Goldbloom, the chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada which is hosting the three-day conference.

When people do find the courage to seek help, it too often isn’t there for them, GoldBloom added.

“Not at their schools, not in their workplaces, not in their families or their social circles — even not in their doctor’s offices or hospitals. Stigma may prevent people from seeking help, but the sad fact is that it also prevents many other people from providing it,” he said.

People often react towards mental illness through avoidance, ignorance, trivialization or fear, GoldBloom said. The stigma and discrimination towards those suffering is not only “unjust and undeserved” but it persists with terrible consequences, he said, noting a lack of detection by parents unwilling to seek needed treatment for their children.

Close’s sister Jessie was diagnosed with depression in the 1980s, bipolar disorder in the late 1990s and finally with bipolar type 1 with psychotic features in 2004 which finally put her on the right medication. She told the crowd she discriminated against the mentally ill, not wanting to approach anyone behaving in a “questionable manner” until she became the one no one wanted to approach.

"Is it possible for someone to really understand a mental illness and show compassion? Not without a personal experience, I think, unfortunately, because stigma can be fear," she said. "But we've come so far in other areas of fear that I know that if we keep pounding on the fear, the stigma it will get better...Remember that epilepsy, cancer and diabetes used to have stigma attached to them and not so much anymore."

Her son Calen cited the unwavering support of his family as a reason he overcame his illness, after two years of hospitalization.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt also took to the stage Monday to share her personal story of overcoming the stigma around mental illness after she suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of her second son.

Raitt, who was then chief executive officer of the Toronto Port Authority needed pharmaceutical mediation and therapy to deal with her illness, but she refused to tell her boss at the time because of stigma. She said she now wants to ensure that all federal workplaces are a safe place for people to speak up and seek treatment.

CTV’s former anchor Lloyd Robertson, who was playing the role of master of ceremony during the first-session of the three-day conference, said his connection to mental illness was through his mother. As a young boy, he was ashamed to bring friends around to his house because he was embarrassed by his mother’s state. Robertson said he knew his mother, who was often hospitalized, wanted to be a good mom but her brain disease just prevented her from being present like the other children’s mothers.

“Fighting stigma is not going to be easy,” Robertson said, citing figures that suggest that 50 per cent of people who are worried about mental illness being in their family or have mental illness in their family would not tell anyone about it. “So, we have a long way to go.”

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