“My world changed,” actress Glenn Close says, “when my sister, Jessie, came up to me one summer day and said, ‘I need your help. I can’t stop thinking about killing myself.’” The award-winning actress had no experience talking about mental illness, despite a family history of depression, alcoholism, and suicide. “We had absolutely no vocabulary for mental illness,” she says.
Starting the conversation
Close decided it was time to talk openly about mental illness, not just with her family but on a national level. With her sister Jessie and Jessie’s son Calen, who suffers from schizophrenia, Close began Bring Change to Mind (BC2M), an organization working with schools to fight the stigma of mental illness. “We started Bring Change to Mind with the simple goal of starting the conversation,” Close says. “Jessie and Calen had the courage, over ten years ago, to talk about their illnesses on a national platform. Their courage continues to be astounding.”
For many people, experiences with mental illness begin in adolescent years, yet mental illness is not discussed as part of a school curriculum. “Mental health is something that all of us have a connection to; however, rarely is it something that students have the opportunity to talk or learn about during their high school years, especially in a peer-led way,” Close says.
High school programs
Bring Change to Mind launched its first high school programs in 2015 with 25 schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. It has since grown to 260 schools across 18 states. “The program works as a club model, similar to any club on campus,” Close says. “The groups typically meet once a week to talk about the various aspects of mental health in our community — this may include mental health in the media, mental health and school stress, personal identity and mental health, and much more. From these in-club discussions, our amazing BC2M advocates then bring this knowledge to the entire school community through campus-wide activities and events so that every student has the opportunity to engage in these topics and learn more about the prevalence of mental illness.”
The program empowers participating students to chart their own course. “It is not a curriculum that is preached down to them or something that remains stagnant,” Close says. “Rather, it is a teen-created and teen-led community that offers all students the opportunity to engage, whatever their connection to the cause.”
This enables the students to plan special events that speak specifically to their school’s community. “Leigh High School in San Jose recently hosted a ‘Tackle Stigma’ football game where the players from both teams wore green socks and they ran through a huge Tackle Stigma Banner at the start of the game,” Close says. “The response from all involved was simply amazing.”
In the four years since the school programs launched, the demand in schools around the country has skyrocketed. The program is now so popular, there is currently a waitlist for new schools that are interested, but Close and her team are continuing to find ways to expand.
On the national level, such open conversations ensure resources are provided for continuing research and outreach programs like BC2M. A 2016 federal report projected that we will have a shortage of 250,000 behavioral health workers in this country by 2025, and part of BC2M’s mission is to encourage interested students to consider jobs in the field to further support their community. “In joining the BC2M program,” Close says, “students gain access to this powerful network of like-minded teens where they can share ideas for campaigns, learn from each other, participate in regional events, and know that, as a collective, they are creating tangible change that will ripple through generations.”