Mental health disorders carry one of the largest disease burdens in the United States, and, left untreated, they can be fatal. That was the case for “Vampire Diaries” actor Chris Wood’s father, who passed away after his heart began failing due to an undiagnosed mental illness.

Instead of staying quiet about the issue, Wood, appearing next on the CW’s upcoming show “Containment,” is collaborating with Mental Health America to raise awareness about these hidden conditions—such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia—that can tear families apart.

“We need to talk about it,” Wood states. “That’s the only way to begin the conversation so that people won’t be afraid to speak up when they need help, and to talk about their issues.”

A silent history

Wood described his childhood as “ordinary,” but for an unknown period of time, his father had been suffering.

“There weren’t any signs that I saw, or that my family saw, in my father,” he says. “By all accounts, he was fine. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something going on beneath it all that we didn’t know about—that he didn’t talk about.”

Unlike cancer or heart disease, mental illness can’t be detected with an X-ray or a biopsy. The only proof there’s something off is if the affected individual says something.

Becoming an advocate

In the past four years since his father died, Wood feels society has made some progress in the study of mental health—but that much of the stigma that surrounded it when his father suffered still exists.

“I want us to get to a place where we are all comfortable enough to admit when we have a problem, and for those around us to encourage nothing but seeking a solution,” Wood says. “I think we’ll get there.”

A CONSTANT BATTLE: In light of his father's mental illness and its consequences, Wood calls for the normalization of therapy and insists on the elimination of stigma regarding both mental illness and mental health care. Photo: John Tsiavis

Wood’s father—similar to others with mental illness—resisted admitting something was wrong during consultations with doctors. That’s another challenge the mentally ill face, as Wood points out: “When you tell someone that their mind is not well, they have to use that unwell mind to process the information. And sometimes the illness itself prevents them from being able to see the issue with full transparency.”

Making a tough call

As Wood’s father’s mania progressed, his family got him to agree to speak with someone. What followed was a slew of diagnoses: “mood disorder, bipolar, manic episode with psychotic symptoms,” Wood recalls. “Each time, he would proclaim that they were the crazy ones, that he was healthier than ever, and leave.”

On his eventual road to recovery, Wood’s father died of heart complications. “We still don’t know and never will really know what happened.”

“'Going to therapy needs to become as normalized as going to the gym; if our minds get out of shape, the rest of us will follow.'”

According to the American Psychological Association, more Americans are seeking mental health care, but Wood said he thinks judgment still accompanies the idea of therapy.

“Admitting you go to therapy can cause people’s eyes to widen,” he reasons. “Going to therapy needs to become as normalized as going to the gym; if our minds get out of shape, the rest of us will follow.” What fuels Wood’s mission to reducing stigma and increasing access to care is helping individuals just like his dad.

“I still wonder if I could have done more, or done something differently and saved him,” he admits. “But instead of letting that defeat me and bring me down, I’ve chosen to put that energy into trying to make a difference—to get people talking about mental health so that it doesn’t continue to happen.”