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Glenn Close, Mental Health Advocate

“You need help, you need a psychiatrist!” a freaked-out Michael Douglas shouts at his lover in a prophetic early scene from the 1987 hit film Fatal Attraction. In response, Glenn Close, who won an Oscar nomination for her role as the deeply troubled Alex Forrest, flashes him a pleading but eerie look—one that scared the pants off millions of movie watchers but also won accolades from mental health experts for its accurate portrayal of the complex nature of mental illness.

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In preparing for the role, Close visited a therapist and researched serious psychiatric conditions. But the actress, who in September won an Emmy for her starring role as a cunning, fiercely driven trial attorney on FX TV’s Damages, has a more personal connection with mental illness, which strikes 5 percent of the U.S. population and affects one in four families. In her first public statement on the issue, Close revealed to AARP The Magazine that she has a family member who suffers from bipolar disorder, and another who has schizoaffective disorder. “I’ve seen mental illness firsthand,” she says. “I know there are millions of people affected, and it’s not just the patient who is suffering. It’s everyone around them.”

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Two years ago the actress began quietly making donations to Fountain House, a 60-year-old not-for-profit organization headquartered in New York City that she discovered while searching for help for her relatives. Fountain House, the model for 325 facilities around the world, offers its members assistance with jobs, education, and housing and also provides a supportive community. “It’s a place where people with mental illness can go and feel safe and that they’re worth something and have value,” Close says. Several times in the past year, Close has volunteered at the New York City Fountain House—cooking meals, arranging flowers with members, and working the phones to help find places to stay for those who are on the streets.

Her involvement in 2009 will be riskier: in the year ahead Close, 61, will headline a national advertising campaign intended to diminish the stigma of mental illness. The actress will represent the face of the three most common mental health disorders: depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. “When I first thought about doing this, I wondered if people would think that I was mentally ill,” says Close. “Then I thought, ‘What’s the alternative? Not to do it?’”

“She gets nothing from this,” adds Fountain House president Kenn Dudek, “and it is in fact a little dangerous. Everybody knows that if you come out and admit a connection with these illnesses, you risk being thought of as unreliable or dangerous, when in fact most of the mentally ill are not.”

As a child, Close was raised to view challenge as a way of life. In 1960 her father, William, who flew planes during World War II and afterward became a surgeon, moved to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo with Glenn’s mother, Bettine, and offered his services at the main hospital, eventually becoming the personal physician to dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. He also helped coordinate the country’s response to the first Ebola outbreak before returning to the United States in 1976 to run a medical clinic for low-income residents in rural Wyoming. “I was brought up in a family where doing for others was the natural thing to do,” says Close.

Over the years she has lent her name to several philanthropic causes while winning tributes for her stage and film work. She married twice, had a daughter—Annie, now a junior at Hamilton College—and found love again, last year marrying David Shaw, a biotechnology entrepreneur. The couple recently launched FetchDog, an online retailer of dog supplies, which donates a percentage of each sale to charity. Close brings her own two rescued pups, Jacob Charles (Jake) and William Hamilton (Bill), and an occasional foster dog, almost everywhere she goes, including to the set of the critically acclaimed Damages, where, she says, she is delighting in “proving that a mature woman can be sexy and complex and carry a show.”

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“What’s so great about Glenn in this role,” says Michael Nouri, who plays her husband on Damages, “is that she is willing to show the shadow side of human nature, and it’s not a comfortable place to be. She’s got guts.”

“I’m interested in playing characters who might be perceived as monsters,” Close says. “I’m interested in where our common humanity is, what makes that person vulnerable.”

Her sensitivity to human frailty has been heightened from watching her mentally ill relatives struggle with addiction, cope with treatment costs (“One of my family members once had to choose between buying a new coat for her child or visiting her therapist”), and deal with the side effects of their medications. What has troubled Close the most, though, and inspired her decision to get more involved with Fountain House, was witnessing the excruciating isolation they experienced. “There was a big part of me that wanted to get into the trenches,” she says.

Close acknowledges that continued research into better treatments for mental illnesses is important. But erasing the stigma, she says, is the first step. That will lead to better funding and better care. Most important, it will help ease the loneliness her family members and others feel. For that, she says, speaking out on behalf of those who cannot always speak up for themselves is worth any risk.

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