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Erasing The Stigma


When Muffy Walker’s 16-year-old son Courtland was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she expected support from her friends — a concerned call, at the very least, or maybe a casserole. After all, that’s what the moms in her circle did for other parents who found out their kids had debilitating diseases like diabetes or cancer.

“Other people got this outpouring of love and support,” Walker says. “For my son, there were no flowers or get-well cards. People actually went the opposite way.”

Bipolar disorder, a mental condition that involves episodes of mania and depression, affects 5.7 million American adults — or 2.6 percent of the population. In recent years, an increasing number of adolescents have been diagnosed, as well.

The disease ranges dramatically in its severity, but even milder cases can lead to social alienation, dangerous behavior such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and promiscuity, and worse. The estimated suicide rate for persons with bipolar disorder is a shocking 15 percent.

For the Walkers, Courtland’s diagnosis at age seven answered a lot of troubling questions. They no longer wondered why he suffered mood swings and violent outbursts of anger — “rages” they’re called in medical lingo — or why he’d talk about wanting to die when he hadn’t yet lived a decade.

But it also left the family flailing as they struggled to find the right doctors, meds, and a support network for Courtland. “Navigating the system was so daunting,” says Walker. “And we didn’t want my son to feel any shame. We decided to treat bipolar like it was any other disease, which it is.”

In June 2007, Courtland’s mother joined forces with three other moms of bipolar kids to found the California Bipolar Foundation, which has since become the International Bipolar Foundation. The organization takes a three-pronged approach to bipolar disorder.

“We raise funds for research,” says Walker. “We do care and support services. And the third part is to erase the stigma. Courtland doesn’t like taking meds, but if you asked him, he’d say the worst part was the stigma.”

“I think it stinks to have bipolar because everyone makes fun of me and my habits,” explains Courtland in an email. “One time in middle school, kids were calling me mean names like ‘psycho’ and ‘looney’ and telling me to go back to the mental hospital (even though I’d never been to one).”


Eliminating this kind of cruelty is a cause close to actress and mental health advocate Glenn Close’s heart. She’s the voice behind BringChange2Mind, a mental illness anti-stigma campaign that’s joined forces with Walker’s foundation. The actress’ younger sister, Jessie Close, has bipolar disorder.


“Stigma does nothing for the person who is ill,” says Jessie. “If we didn’t have stigma, we’d be able to treat people in a much healthier environment and they wouldn’t be so afraid [to get help].”

Jessie admits that she used to hang her head low over her symptoms, suicidal tendencies, and need to be medicated. “I used to be so scared of what people would think if they knew I was bipolar. [Now] I’m very grateful to be heard.”

“I’ve seen how stigma has affected my own family,” says big sis Glenn. “It can cause fear, isolation, and terrible feelings of shame. The affects of stigma can be as bad as the disease, itself.


“Many experts I’ve talked to say the biggest challenge in treating and finding a cure for mental illness is stigma. People need to understand that mental illnesses are real illnesses that require treatment and compassion, just like any other disease. Another important thing to realize is that, for many people, mental illness is treatable, allowing those living with it to lead full and productive lives.”

The International Bipolar Foundation and BringChange2Mind will host an evening with the Close sisters on November 12 at The Grand Del Mar, complete with a VIP reception, delectable dinner prepared by renowned chef William Bradley, and entertainment. (858/342-0327, www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org)   ANNAMARIA STEPHENS


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