Mariel Hemingway is no stranger to depression. In fact, the actress has grown up in its shadow her entire life, with no fewer than seven suicides devastating her family—including her legendary grandfather, novelist Ernest Hemingway and her supermodel sister Margaux. In an Orlando Sentinel feature on the actress, Mariel opened up about the stigmas surrounding mental health and how they have directly affected her career. Through sharing her personal struggles, she’s become an outspoken advocate for mental health wellness. “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 said at a recent conference. The actress has made mental health awareness a crusade that’s clearly less professional for her than it is deeply personal.
Hemingway has starred in a number of feature films, including her Academy Award-nominated turn in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. She also counts the films Personal Best and Star 80 among her credits, not to mention her role on the 1990s series Civil Wars, which garnered her a Golden Globe nom. She has since dedicated herself to writing about her mental health struggles in the form of two well-received memoirs. Through her books and appearances, she has gained a clearer sense of what’s most important to her in life: finding emotional, physical and mental balance. According to the Orlando Sentinel piece, Hemingway now seems to be on a never-ending quest to find that balance: “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.”
And it is balance that gives Hemingway the perspective she needs to see her troubles for what they are—and how to overcome them. "I did suffer depression myself; it wasn't clinical depression, but I had a genetic predisposition for it," she said in the feature. "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." At first, Hemingway wasn’t entirely ready to share her past and personal journey with the world. However, revealing her story has proven to be a decision that has positively affected millions of people worldwide—herself included.
“Living In More Transparent Times”
A Huffington Post story on Hemingway noted that “she’s faced judgment from people who believe mental illness is some kind of flaw or threat.” This is a “mode of thinking [that is] outdated,” she said, “especially given the prevalence of psychological disorders.” The article cites data that "one in five American adults will experience a mental health issue in a given year"—a sobering statistic that proves depression isn’t unique to individuals with the last name “Hemingway.” As the actress puts it: “Everybody has to deal with mental health issues at some level.” In fact, the articles argues that “despite living in more transparent times, [Hemingway] believes the stigma against depression is alive and thriving.”
Growing up, Hemingway knew that she was powerless against the shifting, turbulent weather in her family’s life. Sadly, she didn’t come to that realization until later. "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!’” Sadly, Hemingway’s home life only distanced her further from reality. She would eventually discover that she was less a person than someone to be fussed over in a makeup chair or someone to be ushered from Point A to Point B at a specific call time. She was an object—not a human being with thoughts, feelings, problems and impulses. As a result, she was even less empowered to help stop the tragedies awaiting her.
Where She’s Headed
Hemingway says her family never spoke of their troubles, with a lot of the unchecked depression and other mental disorders only rearing their heads in terrible ways. Through telling her story, she believes she can positively connect with countless people facing similar situations. The legacy of her grandfather, “who shot himself four months before she was born in 1961, [and who] suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder” only makes her more resolute about getting her story out there.
She observes that stigmas around mental health are very much alive and well. (Just look at the latest stats on mental health and causes of death in America). Suicide may be the 10th-leading cause of death, but it’s also the only cause of death that actually continues to climb. As a recent yet alarming CDC report states, between 1999 and 2014, age-adjusted suicide rates spiked by 24% in the US. "There's still a stigma," Hemingway insists. "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 of the University of Miami agrees with Hemingway's take on depression and careers. "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 [Comprehensive Cancer Center] 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."
A member of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention 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." Getting celebrities to speak out is about the only way to give the subject any flight in the media. The Orlando Sentinel article points to celeb mental health pioneers like Patty Duke, Carrie Fisher and Jane Pauley. Hemingway is next on that list, who continues to help by speaking at mental health awareness events.
As much as she is dedicated to sharing her story and experiences, she’s also currently planning a return to the stage or screen. “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.” By shining a spotlight on her past, that very same spotlight may lead Hemingway to a new, more rewarding place on the stage.