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Glenn Close wows mental health experts with campaign against stigma

Actress Glenn Close admits she’s done her share of perpetuating stereotypes of mental illness.

The 65-year-old star of “Fatal Attraction” was in Ottawa on Monday to address a major conference about confronting stigma in mental health, drawing from her experience with her family to explain why people with mental illness need to reach out for help.

In a vivid — at times tearful — speech to hundreds of delegates, she talked about how when she was first acting in New York in the 1970s, she crossed paths with three street people every day.

One would call out to her, another would bang the sidewalk with drumsticks, and the third would sing out at the top of his lungs.

“To me, they were the face of mental illness,” said Close, 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.”

“They were different. And they were scary.”

In the 1987 thriller “Fatal Attraction,” Close was front and centre in a wildly popular movie that she said “ended up perpetuating the prejudice that mentally ill people are violent and terrifying.”

But she wasn’t completely complicit. As she sought to understand Alex, an editor who stalks a man she had had an affair with, Close said she developed “a deep empathy” for the character, realizing she was mentally ill and in need of medication and understanding.

The original ending of the movie had Alex committing suicide, Close said. But when the film’s management took 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. 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 says dryly, referring to the scene in which Alex cooks the pet rabbit belonging to the child of her obsession.

But mental illness is not a fictional topic for the actress. She described numerous relatives who were ostracized over years, with no one acknowledging their mental health problems.

Then, her own sister Jessie fell ill, calling on Close for help to fend off suicidal thoughts. Her sister’s son, Calen Pick, was hospitalized for five years for his mental illness.

“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,” she 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 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.

But 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.

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.