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She always understood the power of words—but never more so than when she began speaking out about mental illness in her own family. The 6-time Oscar® nominee shares her story.
As an actress, I have always loved words. I believe in their power. But certain words have power over us—until we destigmatize them and learn to speak them out loud, without fear or shame.
The first time I confronted an unspeakable word was in 1984, when I was in Something About Amelia, a TV movie that dealt with incest. I could hardly say "incest," but when I did a superbly written piece about what had always been a dirty secret, the word lost its power over me and I could speak it openly. Then came Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. Who could say "vagina" out loud before that play? After being in it, I actually walked into a bike shop and asked for the "vagina-friendly" bike seat. I thought the guy behind the counter was going to pop a gasket. But it was the best way to describe what I was looking for.
My aha moment hit me several years ago, when I realized that three deeply frightening words had power over me: schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar. There is mental illness in my family. And I knew that if I really wanted to help, I would have to learn to say those words fearlessly, out loud. That's the beginning.
I decided to work on destigmatizing those words with my sister, Jessie, who is a single parent with a bipolar disorder, and her son, Calen, who has schizo-affective disorder. Jessie, a born writer, is one of the most creative people I know. She first showed symptoms in her midteens but wasn't diagnosed until her mid-40s. We are lucky she is still here. Calen is a hugely gifted artist who got sick when he was 19 and has endured great suffering. What they both deal with day-to-day is hard to imagine. They are my heroes, as are Jessie's two other children—living with a mom and brother who have mental illness is not an easy proposition.
There are toxic stigmas associated with mental illness: All people living with it are out of control and dangerous. It is the fault of those afflicted. It can be overcome by an act of will—"They should just pull up their socks and get to work!" Wrong on all counts. I needed to make sure I wasn't carrying any unconscious bias myself, so I started volunteering at Fountain House, a community in New York City for people with all levels of mental illness. I got to look into their eyes, stand next to them, and work with them. The more I learned, the less I feared.
And my aha moment is beginning to have repercussions. A group of us, along with Fountain House, are launching a campaign called Bring Change 2 Mind. In June we went to Washington and presented our idea to the major mental health organizations. With their enthusiastic blessing and support, we shot our first public service announcement—in Grand Central Station—directed by Ron Howard. Jessie and I and our children are in it. And John Mayer gave us use of his exquisite song "Say." Bringchange2mind.org has links to all the major mental health groups. It will connect people to whatever they need: help, community, education, or a chance to join one of the organizations.
It is just the beginning, but I hope it will give people the courage to talk about mental illness, to lose their fear of the words, to conquer shame and stigma. Jessie and I felt a huge sense of relief when we decided to speak out. There is nothing to hide. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Depression. I have no fear. We are all connected, and none of us should ever feel marginalized, stigmatized, and alone. —As told to Johanna Schneller
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From the January 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!