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May 24, 2012

Glenn Close Speaks Candidly About Family History of Mental Illness

Three years ago, actress Glenn Close founded Change 2 Mind, a non-profit group dedicated to eliminating the stigma of mental illness. Now, as part of her organization’s ongoing mission, and to mark May as Mental Health Awareness Month, the Oscar-nominated actress is speaking out about how mental illness has affected close members of her own family.

In a revealing interview with NPRs Tell Me More, Close describes mental illness as something strongly present in her family background, but for years never openly addressed. It took her nephew Calen’s diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder to realize that her sister Jess had suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder for most of her life.

“We didn’t talk about this … we were a family that had absolutely no vocabulary for mental illness, so Jess wasn’t diagnosed until her late 40s. Actually her son was diagnosed before she was,” Close confides.

“When Calen got sick, none of us had dealt with anything like that before. And in our ignorance, you know, there probably were a lot of signs that he was certainly in danger of getting ill. Jessie, when I look back when she was very little, there were certainly signs of her behavior … when she tried to kill herself when she was 16, then she tried again. And again, there was nothing that translated in our family as dire.”

The diagnosis Close’s nephew received is relatively uncommon among children and teens. Schizoaffective disorder is a mental condition that causes both a loss of contact with reality (psychosis) and mood problems, including depression. In affected individuals, psychosis and mood problems may occur at the same time, or by themselves. Specific symptoms of schizoaffective disorder include:

– Changes in appetite, energy, and sleep
– Disorganized speech that is not logical
– Delusions or paranoia
– Auditory or visual hallucinations
– Lack of concern with hygiene or appearance
– Elevated, depressed, or irritable mood
– Problems with concentration
– Isolation
– Sadness or hopelessness

It is not uncommon for severe symptoms to be followed by a period of improvement, making schizoaffective disorder sometimes easy to confuse with bipolar disorder, or “manic depression”, a mood disorder marked by shifts between depressed and elevated mood. Research points to close ties between the two disorders, which may account for some overlap.

Examining her family history with more insight, Close realizes that depression stretches back for generations, including more than one suicide. Heredity and genetic predisposition may be a factor in the mental health issues encountered by Close’s sister and nephew. Genetic factors, along with environmental and neurochemical influences, appear to play a role in the onset of both disorders.

As for Glenn, the busy actress is preparing to speak before the 5th International Stigma Conference held this June in Ottawa, Canada. Her goal? Give families the words they need to overcome fear about mental illness and start talking.

“As an actress, I know the great power of language and of words, and if you repeat something that scares you, often enough, it will lose its power over you. So for me, that’s very much the first step,” says Close.

Glenn Close: Mental Illness Shouldn’t Be Old News

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