Close to the Heart

By Sally Fay

Glenn Close, photographed with her family, including sister Jessie Close (second from right) and nephew Calen Pick (center), who both live with mental illness, at Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

Co-founded by Glenn Close, Bring Change to Mind has been working for the last decade to eradicate the stigma around mental illness.

For many of us, living life during this time of pandemic, economic strife and civil unrest, mental health can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are beacons of light and hope, safe places and connection. Those sources of light guide us and stand out in difficult times, like the non-profit organization Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). Headquartered in San Francisco and founded by Glenn Close, along with her sister, Jessie Close (who lives with bipolar disorder), and nephew, Calen Pick (who has schizoaffective disorder), BC2M strives to end the stigma associated with mental illness by getting us to talk about it, and by helping increase empathy, compassion and awareness.

Initially, Bring Change to Mind, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, focused on creating public service announcements (PSAs) to get the conversations going.

The first, directed by Ron Howard and shot in New York City at Grand Central Station in 2009, shows hundreds of people passing one another. In the crowd, there are pairs of individuals who standout in their white T-shirts with stark lettering: “schizophrenia” next to “mom”; “post traumatic stress disorder” with “battle buddy”; “better half” with his arm around “depression.” Glenn Close, with a “sister” T-shirt, speaks to the camera, stating: “One in six adults has a mental illness.” And then, Jessie Close, wearing a “bipolar disorder” T-shirt, says, “And we face a stigma that can be as painful as the disease.” John Mayer’s song Say plays. The PSA is just as relevant today; only now, an estimated one in four adults — and one in five children — are impacted by mental illness.

The nonprofit has since produced eight PSAs that have reached more than 6 billion people through multiple media, including broadcast, print, radio and social media. Each PSA targets different challenges and raises awareness for mental health struggles — including those of men, teens and families — and sheds light on ways to start tough conversations.

Working with youth is also a priority. Before launching the BC2M High School Program in 2015, Executive Director Pamela Harrington explains, “We really wanted to make sure everything is research based.” So they tapped Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., from UC Berkeley, and Dr. Bennett Leventhal of UCSF, to join the BC2M scientific advisory council and help develop the program. “Steve and Bennett were just the perfect collaborators — and we started with 25 high schools in the Bay Area.”

Today BC2M high school clubs are in 400 schools. “We now have 10,000 kids across the country that are a part of these clubs, and when we measured their effectiveness, it increased empathy and compassion. It increased help-seeking behavior, which is what you want,” says Harrington. “It is helping kids in the most immeasurable ways.”

Angelica Cardenas, the school counselor at Drew School in San Francisco, was happy to hear about the BC2M clubs through one of her students, and worked with BC2M program associate Marjess Germono to launch one at Drew. Cardenas says, “The really wonderful thing about BC2M is, they make it as easy as possible to implement it into our school.” Once a school registers, it gains access to a club portal that makes it manageable, specific to its state or region.

Alex Fisher, a junior at Drew and president of Drew’s BC2M club, notes: “Honestly, what I think is the best thing about Bring Change to Mind is the atmosphere and the [acceptance].” Fisher and her committee have adapted to the pandemic and hold their club meetings virtually. They’re also planning a mental health summit in March that will have different workshops and educate attendees on types of mental illness. “Last week, we did a short debrief on bipolar I disorder, bipolar II and depression.” The club is busy distributing care packages to the entire school that include journals, stress balls, essential oils, coloring sheets and crayons — “destress tactics” to inspire peers to take care of their mental health.

Students gather at the BC2M High School Summit at Pinterest’s headquarters in 2019.

Close is really proud of the clubs. “They are a stigma-free zone where kids can talk about what they’re dealing with, can be vigilant for each other [and] can come up with all these wonderful things that they can spread through the schools,” she says. “It’s really been successful, and we have a long list of schools and kids who want to start clubs in their schools — so the more money we can get, the better!”

Zak Williams, son of the late Robin Williams (who appeared with Close in the 1982 film The World According to Garp), joined the BC2M board four years ago. “I realize that had I been exposed to programs associated with mental health support early on in my life, I would have had a better tool set to support me into adulthood,” he says.“ I think the earlier that people can be exposed to programs that break down the stigma and provide a toolkit, the better equipped they are to manage the challenges of daily life.”

In 2017, at the annual BC2M Revels & Revelations fundraising event, the nonprofit presented the first Robin Williams Legacy of Laughter Award to Billy Crystal, one of Robin’s best friends. Since then, recipients have included Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Stiller, and Will Smith and family. In the meantime, Williams plans to continue to support BC2M by focusing on strategy, partnerships, growth initiatives and fundraising, acknowledging, “I am very passionate about innovating within the organization new opportunities to make a difference.”

Glenn Close in character from Hillbilly Elegy.
Close received the SFFILM Award for Acting at the nonprofit’s annual awards night, held virtually on December 9, 2020.

Embracing a Role That Resonates 

Sally Fay caught up with Glenn Close in December, when Close was in San Francisco to accept the SFFILM Award for Acting, and asked her a few questions about her role as Mamaw in the recently released Ron Howard–directed Netflix film Hillbilly Elegy, based on J.D. Vance’s memoir of a family in crisis.

How does mental health impact an entire family? This movie tells that story. It really does. It can be incredibly stressful. The children are anxious. You see his schoolwork was suffering. A child wants to protect their parent. The scene where she’s in the police car and he says, ‘She didn’t do anything.’ That’s the knee-jerk reaction for a child. So, yes, it affects every member of the family. Again, that’s why I think this story is so strong and so accurate.

How did your understanding of mental illness play into your work as Mamaw? Well, you are informed. You know what it’s like.[For me, it’s] Jessie, who is bipolar, and her son, who has schizoaffective disorder. As a family, we have gone through their diagnosis, their going to the hospital, helping, and being aware of what it’s like to manage those chronic illnesses. Jessie lives across the yard from me, and I think all of us in our family now are very, very aware of what it means to really negotiate through those waters, and how important the more empathy, the more understanding, the more we could teach ourselves what it is to be suffering from bipolar disorder or anything like that, the better off we will be with our fellow human beings.

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