Glenn Close and Her Family on Living With Mental Illness: "Scared Shitless"

"It was unheard of to talk about [mental illness] publicly," says the actress in THR's Philanthropy Issue

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Hollywood hasn't always been sensitive to the plight of the mentally ill — and nobody knows that better than Glenn Close, who got an Oscar nomination in 1987 for her role in Fatal Attraction as Michael Douglas' homicidal, bunny-boiling psychotic mistress.

Near to home, though, Close, 67, has long been dealing with the reality of mental illness: Her sister Jessie, 60, has bipolar disorder, and Jessie's son, Calen Pick, 33, is schizoaffective (bipolar with some symptoms of schizophrenia). "It was unheard of to talk about [mental illness] publicly," says the actress, most recently seen onscreen in Guardians of the Galaxy (next she'll be on Broadway with John Lithgow in A Delicate Balance). "But we decided to speak out, as a family."

Close and her sister did more than speak out — in 2010 they founded BringChange2Mind, an organization devoted to altering public perception of mental illness. (Funding came in part from an eBay auction of more than 700 items from Close's Damages wardrobe.) One of its first efforts was a 2010 PSA shot in New York's Grand Central Station directed by Ron Howard. Howard has been interested in the subject of mental illness since, as a child, he witnessed an extra having a schizophrenic fit while on the set of The Andy Griffith Show.

"The illness is self-stigmatizing," says Jessie Close, who appeared in the PSA and is currently working with her sister on another. "If mothers found out I was living with bipolar disorder, I was afraid they wouldn't let their daughters play with my daughter." Jessie's daughter, Mattie, is not ill, but her son, Calen, spent two years at McLean, the Boston psychiatric hospital that treated such troubled luminaries as Sylvia Plath, James Taylor, Ray Charles and John Nash, the mathematical genius played by Russell Crowe in Howard's A Beautiful Mind. "I was scared shitless," Calen says of how he felt when he first realized he was sick. "I felt persecuted and stigmatized."

Today, Jessie and Calen are managing their illnesses. They both are undergoing treatments at McLean as part of a study on glycine's impact on mental health. The medication appears to be having a profound effect on their symptoms. They also get the satisfaction of knowing their treatments are helping doctors understand their condition better every day. "They have a rare mutation of a single gene, the best possible scenario for genetics research," says Glenn.

Or, as Jessie cheerfully puts it, "We're mutants!" 

Go here to find out more about BringChange2Mind and make a donation.

Read more from THR's Philanthropy Issue here.