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When “Twin Peaks” and “Riverdale’s” Mädchen Amick’s son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she was already a famous actress. Many would think that would shield her family from the worst of the American mental health care system, but as we hear about the difficulties she and her husband faced getting their son the care he needed (and needs), we discover that their family’s story sounds very much like many family’s stories.
Join us as a mother walks us through her son’s bipolar disorder diagnosis and treatment and realize that mental illness cannot be contained by celebrity or fame.
Mädchen Amick is the lead of Greg Berlanti’s “Riverdale” for which she directed her second episode and simultaneously reprised her role in David Lynch’s acclaimed “Twin Peaks” reboot for Showtime. Previously, she starred on such prolific series as “American Horror Story,” “Witches of East End,” “Damages,” “Californication,” “Gossip Girl,” and “ER” among others. Mädchen recently launched her don’t MiND me mental health foundation, and next makes her feature directorial debut with “Reminisce.”
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, I am your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can grab a week free just by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today we have Mädchen Amick. Ms. Amick is an actress on the hit series Riverdale. She has previously starred in Twin Peaks, American Horror Story, Californication, Mad Men and E.R., just to name a few. And she recently launched her don’t MiND me mental health foundation in honor of her son, who lives with bipolar disorder. Ms. Amick, welcome to the show!
Mädchen Amick: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Gabe Howard: I want to first tell you that, like your son, Sylvester, I too live with bipolar disorder. So your mission as well as your experiences, your family’s experiences, are super, super close to my heart. I would just miss an opportunity if I didn’t thank you for supporting your son, especially in such a public way.
Mädchen Amick: Mental health struggles struck our family about 10 years ago when my son went off to college. And he was a successful D-1 scholarship athlete, track star, intelligent, bright, beautiful. You know, just sent him off to college to like, All right. Go figure this out. You know, find your way. And just it was triggered by a traumatic event for him and just rocked our world as a family. And we went into a space that we just had no, no idea about and didn’t know what to do. And we sort of were priding ourselves on being a progressive family, liberal family, you know, open minded and, wow, we were hit with a world that we didn’t know. As we navigated our way through it, we just saw all of the injustices in our mental health care system. And it made me so frustrated that if we’re going through it, we know so many others are going through it.
Gabe Howard: Let’s delve into your son’s diagnosis for just a moment, because at the time of his diagnosis, you were a successful actress. You’re currently a successful actress and a successful director. So as the public would say, you’re rich and famous. So when
Mädchen Amick: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: When we hear, oh, we struggled, we had issues, we tend to think that being a public figure, you wouldn’t have those problems. But of course, mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
Mädchen Amick: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Can you talk about how it impacted your family, even with the benefit of being a famous actress?
Mädchen Amick: Yeah, I mean, the harsh reality is, is that mental illness doesn’t discriminate, exactly like you said, and it just doesn’t matter how rich, famous or any of your circumstances, it’s not going to shield you from these worries. We’re all in the same community. We’re all in the same boat of just trying to figure this out. And as we sat there in emergency rooms and waiting rooms with other families and started sharing our story with them, we started realizing the struggle just hits everyone from so many different cultures and socioeconomic categories. And there’s no shame in it. We’re just, we’ve got to figure this out together.
Gabe Howard: You are a public figure. Some people would believe that that helped. Did it help your family that you were a public figure? Or did it? Did it just didn’t matter?
Mädchen Amick: It just didn’t matter, I would say. It could have gone one of two ways; we could have as a family or myself as a celebrity been ashamed of it and tried to hide it and didn’t want to recognize it. And that just would have continued the same cycle that happens within our generations and within our families. And I didn’t at any point ever feel the need to do that. In fact, it actually brought more meaning to my celebrity. I’ve always been a bit of a reluctant celebrity. I just enjoy being an actress and I love working behind the camera and in front of the camera. I never really signed on for the celebrity part of it, but I knew it was just a part of what I did and that was OK, but I really kind of stayed out of the public eye as much as I possibly could. But I saw value in I could actually use my platform and start to spread awareness and talk about the issues and try to make change from it. So I would say that it ended up being a blessing because it just gave me a microphone, literally, as I’m speaking to you through our microphones.
Gabe Howard: Yes. You know, I think about my own family and I think about my mom and she went through a lot. People blamed my bipolar disorder on her just, you know, because it’s always the mother’s fault. That’s one of the many, many, many, many myths that we’re as advocates working to unravel. Right? So my mom felt bad that it was potentially her fault. And I want to be clear, my mom is not any sort of celebrity reluctant or otherwise. Did it make it harder on you because more people know you, which means more people could criticize you as a mother?
Mädchen Amick: Yeah, I don’t, I haven’t experienced that. I think there’s power in just putting it all out there. Any conversation I come into, if it ever sort of comes up naturally, I’m like, Oh, hey, by the way, we’re a family that’s dealing with this. And you’d be surprised at how much other people relate to your story. Everyone I’ve spoken to, they either have somebody in their close family or themselves, like you and I talking. I didn’t know that you had bipolar disorder, but because of this circumstance, it’s brought us together to talk about it, you know? And I think the more that I just put it all out there, there’s just nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. And I think nothing to criticize because that’s a ridiculous concept. But at the same time, it’s a very natural thing, I think, especially even for parents to do to themselves, which is, did I do something wrong? Did I raise my child the wrong way? Did I not protect them from something I should have? But the more that we just got into just learning about the diagnosis scientifically, it just explain things in a way that we could understand and not feel guilty about it. It’s a genetic predisposition, and there’s no blame because do we blame ourselves that we have heart disease in our family? Do we blame ourselves that there’s cancer in our family or diabetes? No, we shouldn’t. Right? So why are we trying to put blame on ourselves or others that a different organ is affected, which is happens to be our brain?
Gabe Howard: My mom is very fond of saying that she’s like, well, I wouldn’t feel bad if you had diabetes or I wouldn’t feel bad if you got cancer, and we’ve talked in our own family that of course, those are casserole illnesses. Right. People
Mädchen Amick: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Hear about it and they tend to give you support and love. In your own family, forget about the general public, but in your own family, what was the reaction?
Mädchen Amick: Uhm, there was no real, purposeful discrimination or shame, but I think it just comes out and it shows its way in different ways. My mom and my stepdad were very supportive. Did they completely understand it? No. Was there a learning curve? Yes. Did they say some things here and there that we had to correct them and say, Yeah, let’s not use the word crazy. Let’s not, you know? And it’s interesting because my stepdad was a physician. He passed a few years back, but very intelligent, knew the body really well. But the mind was a bit of a mystery to him. And when the diagnosis was mentioned to us as a family and not even confirmed, oh, it just it felt like I was kicked in the gut when I heard it, it just sounded so scary. My take on what bipolar was was only what I sort of knew from film and TV. And so it just sounded very scary and villainous, and it made us feel like we had to, like, mourn the loss of our son’s future, you know? And it ended up the more I looked into it and got exposed to other people who’ve had the diagnosis. Many, many, many people living very successful, happy lives with a diagnosis. It created that light at the end of the tunnel for us, and I think it created a great dialog within our family in our immediate family. And so, yes, it was difficult at times, but we got through it. And I think if you’re not afraid to talk about it and also say, like, that’s actually not okay to say or that’s really not the way to think about it, maybe thinking about it like this, it actually creates a healing within a family that’s been swept under the rug and avoided because it just feels too scary and uncomfortable.
Gabe Howard: With my bipolar disorder, nobody in my family saw it coming, I didn’t see it coming. Was there any warning signs, even in retrospect, that something might be going on with your son? Or was it just literally a freight train in the middle of the night?
Mädchen Amick: It kind of felt like a freight train, to be honest, now, were there things maybe in his adolescence that we could say, oh, like, oh, maybe that might have been a kind of precursor sign, you know? Like a lot of teachers were kind of bringing it to our attention like, your son might have ADHD, you know, and it just didn’t feel right to us. And I have heard since that sometimes early signs of bipolar could look like that in adolescence. So it’s hard to say, right? It really did feel like just out of the blue hit him at 19, and he definitely had a traumatic event that triggered the underlying predisposition to the illness. But out of curiosity, since you have the diagnosis, do you have bipolar I or bipolar II?
Gabe Howard: I have bipolar I. Bipolar I with psychotic features is my official diagnosis.
Mädchen Amick: Yeah, that’s my son as well. Bipolar I. He’s more on the manic side, psychotic features when he’s manic. You know, what’s difficult about that one is treatment centers are not equipped to deal with mania. I mean, him going in and out of treatment centers and crisis centers. They would take him in and they would, you know, like a week later, kick him out. They didn’t understand the mania, they didn’t understand how to treat it and how to handle it. And it’s interesting because the depressive side and the suicidal ideation is obviously a very scary thing and very serious, but a little bit easier to manage in a way of you have to just keep the person in a safe place, make sure you’re watching everything they’re doing. Get them out of that episode. But with mania, it’s so hard. So I appreciate what you’re going through and what your family goes through.
Gabe Howard: Oh, thank you so much for that, I know I often joke that mania has the best public relations people in the entire world because it’s sort of romanticized, right? People will say to me all the time, it’s like, Oh, I wish I could bottle a little bit of that mania, and I’m like, Oh, you want to spend all your money, lose your wife and alienate your family? I mean, that’s
Mädchen Amick: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: A weird thing to want, but sure. And now
Mädchen Amick: Yep.
Gabe Howard: I’ve seen a picture of your son. He’s a big guy, right? I mean, I’m six foot three, 240 pounds, and he looks. We look equivalent, although he’s younger and healthier.
Mädchen Amick: Yeah, yeah, no, he’s yeah, he’s six two. Yeah, big, beautiful, charming, talented athlete.
Gabe Howard: And I think that people, the general public that don’t really understand what mania can look like when it’s at its peak, you’ve got a giant of a man, a healthy man, a big guy who is unstoppable and it quickly turns scary. And what’s so bad about it, and I don’t know how it is for your son, but of course, in my mind, everybody loved me and everything was great. How has all of that worked itself out? How’s your son doing now?
Mädchen Amick: He’s doing well now, he did have a full-blown episode just this last spring. I don’t know if you experienced the same thing, but the seasonal cycles can be really challenging. And so for him, spring is hard because that’s just really, really challenging for his chemicals. And we had to work hard to find him treatment again 10 years later and unfortunately saw that our mental health care system is worse off now than 10 years ago, which is just so frustrating, which fueled why we wanted to make a change and make a difference with our foundation. So the amazing and he’s my hero in that he’s been hit with such adversity in his life, in his young life. But man, is he a fighter and he vocalizes when he needs help and he keeps working and fighting for that balance and to get help. And the moment he’s stable, he immediately reaches back and tries to help others because he knows how challenging it is and how hard it can be. So he always, he reaches back and does what he can when he can.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back with one of the stars of television’s Riverdale, Mädchen Amick. Let’s talk about you and your family’s mental health advocacy because, as you’ve said, the mental health system, it’s not great. We’ll just kind of leave it at that. What are you and your family and your foundation doing to help frankly modernize the mental health system and bring us to where we need to be so that that people like your son don’t get left behind?
Mädchen Amick: Well, and that’s the hard thing, and in one of the moments of trying to find him help this last time, he even, you know, sort of made a comment at one point and said, I feel like I’ve been lost through the cracks, you know, because he wants the help. He’s trying to find the help and the right treatment, and the system itself is failing him and it’s failing so many others, and it’s just completely unacceptable. Our system is set up right now to just rotate people in and out of beds and then just turn it over to the next person. And we all know with any illness, it takes time and it takes care and treatment for a long time to turn things around. So our foundation is, yes, not only erasing the stigma, creating awareness, doing the story part of it. As we spoke before, we also have a podcast coming out to just continue to talk about our story, but it’s to sponsor people not only help them find their way into treatment, but then support them through treatment.
Gabe Howard: I think that’s incredible. Now the name of the foundation is don’t MiND me, and it’s a relatively new organization. It started in the last year, is that correct?
Mädchen Amick: Yes, we came out with our social campaign at the end of May, Mental Health Awareness Month. So we launched all of our social sites and started creating a conversation around don’t MiND me, and then literally, today is our official launch of our website you can go to dontMiNDme.org and see what we’re doing there. And I’ve just announced my first fundraiser, which is to join me for a live viewing party to watch a very special episode of Riverdale, a virtual viewing party together. So just being creative with my platform and trying to raise awareness and get the support to those in need. Once we get beyond getting people into treatment, we’re also going to be simultaneously tackling how to make a difference within our mental health care, how to move reform along. We need training in our first responders. We need an actual mental health first responder. Instead of police coming to a phone call of crisis and not knowing how to handle a situation, which we’ve seen doesn’t go well, a lot of the times, I think those stories aren’t really talked about. We’ve had amazing police officers show up in our mental health crisis situations that handled the situation really well, thank goodness.
Mädchen Amick: But there are so many circumstances where that doesn’t go well. So our police force, our officers, they need proper training and we need an actual department like a first responder to assess the situation immediately and get somebody into help. We need more funding for our hospitals. If you’re coming in with a heart attack, you’re going to go to the cardiac wing. So why if you’re coming into an emergency room with a manic episode or suicidal ideation, why is there not a wing for that? And it’s because the funding was taken away in the 80s and was never brought back. It was promised to be brought back into clinics, and the funding never came into clinics. And we are a nation and a globe in crisis for our mental wellbeing, and we want to be a part of bringing the support back to our communities and our families. We have a lot to tackle and we’re ambitious and all we can do is just do our part and do the best we can.
Gabe Howard: Obviously, you can’t read your son’s mind, so I would not ask you to speak for him, but how does he feel about his public figure mother talking about his mental illness and working out in the community and starting this foundation? What’s his perspective on all of this?
Mädchen Amick: It’s always something that I want to always be sensitive to, and I think everyone that’s an advocate and wants to talk about their story just to be sensitive, it’s like I can share my story and my perspective, but I want to honor where he’s at and when he’s ready to share certain things. And so I was careful to do it. I wanted to make sure that he was in a good place and believed in it and wanted this to happen as a family. And he’s always been like, Absolutely, if we can share what we went through to help someone else, I want to be a part of it. But then there’s always those worries of like, Oh gosh, am I just going to be known as my famous mom’s, you know, crazy son? Right? There’s always that fear that creeps in. Will people understand? Will they categorize us or him? But he’s been so wonderful when he’s spoken. And I’ve asked him from time to time, How are you feeling about this? Is this OK? Am I sharing too much of our story? Am I putting this on blast too much? And he always just encourages it and says, Look, this is your story along with mine and anything that we can do to share our experience that might help someone else, let’s do it. So we’ve gone at this as a family with family intention.
Gabe Howard: I think too often when we see public figures talking about mental illness and they’re in their rush to be positive and hopeful and optimistic, they leave out the part where it is scary and it can be stigmatizing. And there is, unfortunately, considerations that it’s sad we have to consider, but they’re unfortunately there. So I thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for being honest about the fact that your son wondered, you know, what’s going to happen? I think that’s a reasonable human fear to have. I also thank you and your son for conquering it.
Mädchen Amick: And also at the same time, you know, everybody has a right to come out and talk about their story when they’re ready. You don’t have to put it all out there. If you want to stay silent for a while, that’s OK. But when you get to that point where you’re comfortable, it does add into the collective and there’s more power in numbers and the more of us that talk about it and normalize it, because by the way, it is, it’s normal. What is normal, right? It’s all messy. There’s no perfect anything. And for us to try to put ourselves in these little boxes is ridiculous. What I find very, I’m thankful for and what’s been enlightening to me is I think if this hadn’t happened to our family, we wouldn’t have learned the tools that we needed to learn for ourselves, which is let’s check in with our own mental health. Let’s be able to check in with each other and just recognize things. And we might have been just stuffing these feelings and struggles farther and farther down because you have to be productive, you have to be happy, you have to be successful, but you don’t always feel that way and you’re not always going to be that way. And it’s OK, you know, and it just because you’ve been given the diagnosis, quite frankly, you’re the lucky one because you’ve been given something that you can now at least you have a path to navigate and figure out what works. What doesn’t. What’s worked for other people. What hasn’t.
Gabe Howard: Ms. Amick, thank you so much for being here. This next question has absolutely nothing to do with mental health. I just really want to know. You’ve been in a lot of shows and had so many roles. My favorite is Twin Peaks. I just want to tell you that right now, that is where I discovered you. It’s great show. I was the right age for it. But what has been your favorite role in your career so far?
Mädchen Amick: Oh, gosh, I mean, I do have to say I have a special place in my heart for Shelly Johnson because it was the first big, main thing I did. It also introduced me to a lot of wonderful people and filmmakers, to David Lynch, who became my mentor since then. So I definitely have a very special place and then to be able to revisit it 25 years later, as the reboot on Showtime was just so emotional and touching to me, to see where all the characters had gone over the past 25 years was really, it was just so special and great. I also really enjoyed playing Lena in the movie Dream Lover. It was just a quiet, little psychological thriller I starred alongside with James Spader, and it just was very challenging as an actress. I thought it was great. And at the moment, I am enjoying Alice Cooper on Riverdale because she’s just a hot mess. Talk about not being diagnosed. Holy smokes. Talk about something through life and needs a little bit of mental health help. Wow. She’s the epitome of that, so she’s been fun to play.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for sharing your story and for being here. It’s very appreciated.
Mädchen Amick: Absolutely, thanks for having me on, and thanks for being so open and wonderful about your diagnosis. You know, through that, we can have this great conversation about bipolar disorder I, right? And what goes along with it.
Gabe Howard: Well, thank you so much, I really appreciate that, and to all of our listeners, thank you as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations, as well as an award winning public speaker who is absolutely available for your next event. My book, of course, is on Amazon. What isn’t? Or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free and recommend the show to people. Send an email, post it on social media. Word of mouth is absolutely still a thing. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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