On November 5, Glenn Close stopped in on PBS professor Olaf Sporn's P457 seminar, "The Connected Brain," as part of her trip to the campus to raise awareness of mental illness and combat the stigma that surrounds it. Accompanied by IU sociologist Bernice Pescosolido, who studies stigma and mental health, the class visit followed her large public lecture at the Whittenberger Auditorium. Sporns’ course is one of the 2013 Themester course offerings related to “Networks in a Complex World” and the discussion started with a question of how social networks might or might not help raise awareness and combat stigma.
Undergraduate Senior Elliot Layden asked a question on whether knowledge of the physical or organic causes of mental illness might help to reverse its stigma. Close responded with an anecdote that suggested it might not.
On a visit to a graduate neuroscience lab at a large, prestigious university, she spent some time with the graduate students in the lab. One woman in particular had stood out as a really articulate, star student among them. When Close got up to go to the bathroom, the woman followed her out and came up to her weeping. She told Close that she suffered from serious depression and could never divulge this to others in the lab or she would lose their respect and her standing in the lab.
Sporns further explored the issue, pointing out the way such “organic or physical causes” themselves have complex relationships to the world in which they exist. Social experience, including the experience of being stigmatized, can affect and alter brain chemistry and function. He called attention to the work being done on embodiment that reveals the complex way in which the physical structures and functions of the brain respond to and are shaped by social and environmental phenomena.
Pescosolido added to this with the notion that for this reason, it was necessary for many fields to come together to tackle the topic: neuroscientists and psychologists, anthropologist and sociologists, to name a few. No single view can capture the complexity of mental illness and stigma.
“We are now trying to work together,” she explained, “so we can see how the brain, how social relationships, how different social contexts all work together in terms of changing the brain, changing people’s lives, because we now know it’s very complex. We now know all of those things are working together in concert.”