One would think that a Hollywood actor would keep their personal struggles with mental illness private. After all, it might be difficult to get work and maintain a good image.
Actor Eric Roberts took a different stance when he decided to support the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Collier County. “I’m famous for playing crazy, bad people. Who would think I’d be interested in this issue and would help?” Eric Roberts asked rhetorically in a recent interview at his hotel in Naples. “Nobody gets by with a clean slate. Everyone has been touched by cancer and everyone has been touched by mental illness,” Eric Roberts said. His wife, Eliza added: “We want it (mental illness) to be as de-stigmatized as cancer.”
The couple, married 20 years, spoke at the NAMI Friends Make A Difference luncheon held Friday Dec. 7 at the Naples Hilton.
Exactly one week later, the nation, in fact much of the world, was listening to the news of the mass murder of 27 people — mostly children — at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. At the time this story was written, the general public did not yet know the specific role that mental illness may have had in the tragedy. Nonetheless, many around the world were asking related questions.
The key is that people have a place to reach out to — no one is alone, Eric Roberts and NAMI officials said.
“At this time of unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, Conn., every family in our community is touched in some way,” said Kathryn Hunter, Director of NAMI of Collier County.
“NAMI is here to help. We stand ready to provide support to parents to help their children who are scared and anxious. We stand ready to offer support, or counseling to those in need. Please reach out,” she said. NAMI provides a non-judgmental ear and helps people to find the resources they need. “Most importantly, NAMI provides hope. NAMI will be there for the person feeling alone, scared, and, we will help them navigate the system. We will be with them on this journey as long as they need,” Hunter said. A big reason Eric Roberts said he chose to support NAMI’s progressive approach is because the organization keeps people involved in their own care and they can make their own decisions.
NAMI reached out to Eric and Eliza Roberts more than a year ago because they had been open about their family’s personal experiences with mental illness. “We were surprised at his generosity…What was most impressive was their honesty about those in their family affected by mental illness and they reinforced many of our own philosophies. People are people first, not their illness. We need to educate ourselves and not be ashamed to seek help,” Hunter said. Eric Roberts said that isolation is the worst thing that can happen and friends really do make a difference.
“People often feel isolated and alone — that is until they find NAMI,” said Hunter. The schools are conservative in Collier County, but they’re getting more involved, she said. They’ve begun seeking NAMI’s advice and assistance when children are demonstrating signs of emotional and mental health challenges.
Early detection is critical and NAMI funds programs, through fundraising events, such as the recent luncheon, for childhood screening. The luncheon raised about $100,000 and welcomed 300 attendees. Naples resident Karla Phillips was chair of the event and said she was impressed with Eric Roberts.
“Mental illness is a much more widespread occurrence than you would have thought. It is an illness that people have been unwilling to talk about and that is the biggest problem. To be labeled and judged by that label is not only unfair, it is also untrue. We hope to help erase the stigma of mental illness in this community,” said Phillips, who first sought NAMI for resources as her son faces mental health challenges.
She was pleased to give back to NAMI, which has an annual budget of $1.2 million and serves 14,000 people annually free of charge. NAMI works in coordination with the David Lawrence Center, HUGS, Youth Haven and Collier Health Services.
NAMI is looking at state cuts of about $30,000 in 2013 even when needs continue to grow.
Attempted suicides and suicides are on the rise in Collier County. Economic challenges and depression while facing medical problems are two top factors locally, NAMI officials reported. “The community needs to understand that mental illness is no different than diabetes or heart disease. The brain is simply another organ in the body,” Hunter said.
Eric Roberts became involved with NAMI first at the non-profit’s annual walk held at Cambier Park in March. NAMI is continuing to draw big names, with actress Amy Yasbeck, widow of John Ritter, planned as the grand marshal for the event in March 2013. As both famous actors will tell you, fame, fortune or career success do not make you immune to mental health problems. Eric Roberts said he struggled as a child to fit in sometimes. He was bullied and he stuttered, making the bullying worse. “I was a little boy, who looked like a little girl, who was an actor in the southeast,” Eric Roberts said. “What? You’re an actor? Nu-uh, you’re an actress,” he said, recalling the days he was picked on by other kids.
Roberts was open that he struggled with mental illness, particularly depression and attention deficit disorder as well and perhaps other diagnoses that he did not elaborate on. He suffered severe injuries in a car accident that left him in a coma and took years to recover from, including cognitively.
Roberts would brush his teeth, put his toothbrush down while rinsing his mouth and then forget where his toothbrush was, he recalled. Depression is the No. 1 killer, he said. People get hurt but they don’t talk about the depression that follows. “If I don’t get this well in this amount of time, I’m done. I had a plan and every day I got closer to that plan,” Roberts said. “Then, I got better.”
He said his mental health challenges affected his career but work helped him cope. Though he hasn’t had as many of the huge leading blockbuster roles that sister Julia Roberts had, he’s been in many very successful films and is extremely talented, getting great reviews from top critics throughout his long career. Mostly, he stayed busy, very busy. “Work saved my life,” Roberts said. He added that his wife made it worth it. “She helps me deal with my issues in a way that’s calm and helpful and loving. I want to learn to give that to someone else. That’s why I’m here,” Roberts said.
“You can’t do this alone and you don’t do this alone,” he said.
For more information about NAMI call (239) 434-6726 or visit www.nami.org.