With 7 suicides in her family, Mariel Hemingway declares war on depression
With seven suicides in her family — including those of her writer grandfather Ernest and her supermodel sister Margaux — Mariel Hemingway hasn’t just been affected by depression and suicide. She has been besieged by it.
This history is why the actress, the youngest daughter of Ernest Hemingway’s son Jack and famous for such films as “Manhattan,” “Personal Best,” “Star 80” and “The Mean Season,” has spent the last several years speaking as a mental health and wellness advocate.
“I started to realize I had a great understanding of the whole space,” says Hemingway, who was in South Florida recently to speak at State of Recovery 2016, a conference held at the Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood on behavioral health care. “I was drawn to being able to tell a story so that other people don’t feel alone, so they don’t feel isolated inside the darkness — because there is so much darkness when you don’t speak about it, and there’s so much hope and light in recovery if you’re able to tell your story.”
Hemingway, 54, the divorced mother of two grown daughters, is remarkably friendly and upbeat for someone whose family practically defines the phrase “troubled past,” but then, she has dedicated herself to a search for peace (“I’ve traveled to different countries. I’ve chanted. I’ve done primal scream. I’ve eaten every way, and I’ve exercised too much — I’ve tried to find all the different avenues to create balance”). She has long promoted lifestyle balance and wellness, but her public transformation to mental health advocate began several years ago, when a friend at OWN suggested she make a documentary about her family (her eldest sister, Joan, suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia).
At first, Hemingway demurred. But on further reflection, she realized the merit in such a work — and grabbed the chance to reflect on her past in a positive light.
“I did suffer depression myself; it wasn’t clinical depression, but I had a genetic predisposition for it,” she says. “I grew up watching a family that was completely amazing and creative but also destructive and self medicating. All of them, they were addicts. I didn’t want to end up like that. I was on a mission.”
The result was “Running From Crazy,” directed by Barbara Kopple (co-director of “Shut Up & Sing,” a documentary on country music’s The Dixie Chicks and the band’s political travails). “Running From Crazy,” which aired in 2013, was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary in 2014 (there’s a repeat screening Aug. 4 on OWN).
Last year, Hemingway, who had published self-help books on such subjects as yoga and healthy eating, continued what she calls her “journey” by publishing two memoirs: “Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family” and “Invisible Girl,” written diary-style and aimed at teenagers, both co-written by Ben Greenman.
Reaching out to young adults was important to Hemingway, who grew up in Ketchum, Idaho, and became a caretaker to her family at an early age (at 11, she used to drive her mother home from chemotherapy appointments).
“I thought I could fix my family when I was a kid,” she says. “If somebody could have talked to me, it would’ve taken all that pressure off me. I actually thought it was my job to make my family better because everybody was so messed up. I thought, ‘Well, somebody’s got to clean up after the crazy.’ … It’s why movie sets were less messy than my home life. I was cleaning up after nights of too much wine all my life. When I started making movies it was an occasion. I thought, ‘Oh my God, people give me things! They take care of me!’”
The fact that her family never spoke of their issues — Hemingway believes her grandfather, who shot himself four months before she was born in 1961, suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder — only makes her more determined to tell her story. Despite living in more transparent times, she believes the stigma against depression is alive and thriving.
“There’s still a stigma,” she says. “It’s funny, because I’m such a healthy, balanced person now. But with people in the industry, because of a couple of stories that came out, they were like, ‘I don’t know if we can hire her — isn’t she depressed?’ But you can be a drug addict or you can beat your wife or husband, you can do all kinds of crazy stuff and still get hired, still get a promotion. But even now, when you talk about mental health, people are really afraid, because it’s too close to home. Everybody has to deal with mental health issues at some level.”
Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff, chairman of the psychiatry department at UHealth — University of Miami Health System, agrees with Hemingway’s assessment on the pervasive stigma against depression-related issues.
“It’s robust in many ways,” he says. “We have this fabulous cancer center at UM. It’s so successful in raising money for research. But compare the amount Sylvester can raise compared to what we can raise in psychiatry — it’s a mere fraction. Strokes and Parkinson’s are brain diseases. So is depression. What’s different? They’re both above-the-neck diseases. We still fight this tremendous stigma.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death for Americans — “the only cause of death in the top 10 that’s increasing, not decreasing,” Nemeroff says. A member of the board of directors of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, he attributes misconceptions about depression and suicide to a variety of factors, including poor insurance reimbursements for mental health care and an ongoing lack of funding and research. Raising awareness, he says, is key, which is why any celebrity to speak out about the subject is helpful.
“Patty Duke was one of the first. Carrie Fisher has done it. Jane Pauley. There’s a local actor here in Miami, Gabrielle Anwar [of “Burn Notice”] who has followed in Mariel’s footsteps and was able to speak about her own issues with depression,” Nemeroff says. “They say you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it. But yes, you can. Look at AIDS.”
As for Hemingway, she’s looking forward to returning to acting, but in the meantime she’ll keep sharing her experiences.
“It’s liberating,” she says. “Every time I tell my story, I say something different. It unlocks something and lets something go. That’s why I know telling your story is really important for me — and for everyone.”