Glenn Close on Striving to Destigmatize Mental Illness through Nonprofit Bring Change to Mind

BY PATI NAVALTA POBLETE | October 8, 2019 | People Feature

SF is home base for actress Glenn Close’s fight to end stigma of psychiatric illness.

Glenn Close (left) with nephew Calen Pick and sister Jessie Close.

Actress Glenn Close remembers lying in bed with the flu as a young girl, quietly wondering if she had cancer. It was such an unspeakable illness back then that all she could do was internalize the fear. Thanks to numerous organizations and the efforts of survivors and families, cancer is no longer a stigma, but a disease that is openly discussed, researched and made aware of, perhaps more so than any other disease.

Through Bring Change to Mind (BC2M), an organization she co-founded, Glenn hopes to do the same for mental illness.

“My dream and vision is that one day it’s just as normal to talk about mental illness as it is about cancer,” she says during a phone interview. “I think it’s a frontier we need to conquer, and it will only lead to people living life, saving lives and being able to contribute to their community in a way that we all should, and do.”

The cause is a deeply personal one for the award-winning actress, now 72. Her sister, Jessie Close, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her nephew, Calen Pick, with schizoaffective disorder. Finding the stigma around their diagnoses just as bad as the illnesses themselves, both Jessie and Pick approached Glenn for help.

“My first reaction when they asked for help was ‘yes,’” she says. “The second was, ‘You have to do it with me; you’re the ones living with it; you’re the ones faced with stigma.’ So I said to them, ‘We’ll mount a national campaign, but you will need to be able to talk on a national stage about what you’re living with.’ The organization was founded nine years ago.

Together, Glenn, Jessie and Pick created the nonprofit organization with a mission to end stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. San Francisco has become the epicenter of the national movement, due in large part to the organization’s San Francisco-based executive director, Pamela Harrington, and board member, Zak Williams, whose father, the late actor and comedian Robin Williams, is honored through an award given at BC2M’s annual fundraiser. This year, the Robin Williams Legacy of Laughter Award will be presented to actor Ben Stiller at the Seventh Annual Revels + Revelations event Oct. 17 at Bimbo’s 365 Club.

“This award symbolizes how laughter and humor can make a difference,” says Zak, 36. “Previous honorees Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal embodied that. They are so giving in their time and effort and energy to causes, and we feel that Ben Stiller absolutely embodies that spirit as well.”

Robin died by suicide Aug. 11, 2014. Zak believes BC2M programs could have helped him and his family if the organization was around when he was younger.

“My experience in high school and college was like the experience of a lot of people in my generation.” he says. “A lot of times, difficult topics were swept under the rug. Had I had access to programs like those that Bring Change to Mind deploys, it would have been helpful for me personally, as I’ve struggled with anxiety and issues associated with it my entire life. In our family, we weren’t knowledgeable about how to talk about mental illness. It was a challenging thing. The more we can contribute to raising a dialogue and evolving that dialogue, the more I feel that reduced stigma can lead to more connection to people.”

A large focus of the organization is youth. According to Glenn, the BC2M’s High School Program is an evidence-based, student-led club effort that provides teens with a platform to promote mental health and self-care in a way that is relevant to them and their peers. Since its launch in fall 2015, the initiative now includes more than 260 high schools currently enrolled across the wider Bay Area, Southern California, Arizona, Ohio, Indiana and New York City.

On Nov. 2, the Fourth Annual Student Summit will be held in San Francisco, with more than 300 teens participating in knowledge-building activities, such as a panel of mental health experts and youth leaders and individuals sharing their experiences.

“To sit and hear the kids talk is so inspiring,” says Glenn. “They know how to talk to each other and where to talk to each other, and we’re establishing these summits across the country. Our name is now with the high school programs, and it started in 2015 in [the] Bay Area.”

BC2M partnered with UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco to pilot the program’s model of education and prevention. “The research has proven that kids are actively involved and that the clubs reduce social distance,” says Glenn. “We’ve been able to see a measurable increase in empathy and compassion. Students now have courage to ask for help, and there’s a decrease in bullying.”

Glenn credits her sister, nephew and the students living with mental illness for their courage, more so than any action she’s taken in raising awareness.

“I’m just the prow on the ship,” she says. “It’s really their incredible work, and that of Pamela and our board, and all of these kids who have embraced and ran with it. They’re the ones in the trenches, and they’re the ones I tip my hat off to.”

Photography by: Courtesy of Bring Change to Mind