Mariel Hemingway blazes a personal path for mental health awareness

Actress-turned-mental health activist Mariel Hemingway will give the keynote talk at the Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation’s Fall Symposium on Wednesday, Oct. 19.
Actress-turned-mental health activist Mariel Hemingway will give the keynote talk at the Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation’s Fall Symposium on Wednesday, Oct. 19. Via Invision and The Associated Press

Mariel Hemingway is excited about coming back to Idaho. You can hear it in her bubbly voice on the phone, talking about her upcoming visit to Boise.

The product of one of Idaho’s and America’s most famous families, she grew up in the mountains around Sun Valley.

Hemingway’s grandfather, Pulitzer-and Nobel-prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway, forged the family’s connection to the state. Her father, Jack, an outdoorsman, environmentalist and writer, moved his family to Ketchum when she was very young. She kept her connection there while she developed her critically acclaimed acting career and started a family of her own.

“Lately I’ve been rediscovering Boise and Ketchum and, holy cow, they’re fun,” Hemingway says, almost giddy. She and her partner of eight years, Bobby Williams, currently live in Los Angeles, but she enjoys returning to the state she still calls home. In fact, she and Williams are seeking a home in Ketchum to live in at least part of the year, she says.

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, Hemingway, 55, will give the keynote address for the Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation’s Fall Symposium “Our Mental Health: Critical Issues Facing Families and Communities.” The foundation hosts a biennial conference on issues that the organization funds through its grants, says the foundation’s vice president Heather Jauregui.

We want to help people better understand the important issues our community faces.

Heather Jauregui, Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation

“Mariel is the perfect person to talk about this, especially with her Idaho ties,” Jauregui says.

Mental health is an issue that Hemingway has become a standard bearer for on a national level after having openly discussed her family’s legacy of legacy of mental illness, suicide and addiction.

“I realized that I had a story to tell, and not because my story is so great, but because it’s everybody’s story,” Hemingway said in a phone interview from her office in Los Angeles.

She’s been a working actress since 14, starring with her sister Margaux in “Lipstick” in 1976. She received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” in 1979. “Personal Best” in 1982, and “Star 80” in 1983, about the tragic life and death of Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, also garnered favorable accolades for Hemingway.

There have been other roles in her career, and her life, but none more important, she says, than her current role as activist, drawing awareness of the deepening problem of mental illness that exists within our culture.

And she comes at it from a very personal place. Seven of Hemingway’s family members, including her grandfather, took their own lives. After her older sister Margaux died from an intentional overdose in 1996, Mariel Hemingway embarked on her journey to break the so-called “Hemingway curse” for herself and her two daughters.

“I started to realize it was important for me to share my story — being in the public eye, whatever, it’s not that I’m a big star — but I’m a big-enough celebrity that people pay attention,” she says. “They say, ‘Oh, wow. We thought you were perfect.’ And, thank God, I did (share) because, now I know I’m not alone.”

Hemingway took her own mental health very seriously several years ago, adopting a lifestyle free of alcohol and drugs and filled with yoga, outdoor activities, good nutrition, open communication and therapy.

“When I live that way, I can overcome any obstacle,” she says.

In 2008, she ended her troubled marriage to filmmaker Stephen Crisman. And in 2013, she made the documentary “Running from Crazy” about her work to maintain her emotional footing and distance herself from her family’s struggles with suicide and self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

She authored several books, including a memoir in 2002 “Finding My Balance,” and her latest “Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family” with Ben Greenman.

“I was doing a little bit of talking about these issues before, but once I made the documentary, it was like I opened a huge can of worms.” she says. “It’s become a very big deal. I speak all over the country, and I’m starting to see a shift. People are more willing to open up and talk with me about their experience with mental illness, because it’s everywhere. I think we’re nearing a tipping point in being open about and saying that it’s OK to talk about it.”

To compound things, mental health issues often work in tandem with addiction issues as people resort to drugs and alcohol to numb themselves to the world.

“When I’m talking about mental illness, I’m also talking about drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders — or whatever — I’m talking about all the things as human beings we have to deal with in the modern world. It’s just a reality we have to accept,” she says.

This “cocktail” is more prevalent than other diseases that get so much more funding and attention, she says.

Hemingway hopes her appearances, books and documentary help inspire others to get help and to get healthy, but they’ve also help her exorcise her own personal demons.

“What’s been interesting about telling this story is that over time, the more I tell it, the more it becomes like a fairy tale,” Hemingway says. “It becomes just a story about where I used to be in my life, and who I was then. It’s important to be able to share it and then release it, because your father, your mother, your sister, or whomever, is not you. It’s through the telling of our stories we get to separate from them, and then we can leave them behind.”

Her own struggle with depression was less dramatic than her family’s but no less significant, she says.

“I suffered from depression most of my life but it wasn’t until I wasn’t depressed that I realized it,” she says. “I was in a 24 year marriage that I was pretty miserable in — no fault of anybody but my own — but it was a kind of relationship I understood. I understood that marriages and families were always kind of unhappy.

“I wasn’t clinically depressed or manic like my family, but I was tired all the time. I was always just a little bit sad,” she says. “It was like having a low-grade infection, and I could put on a good face and make out that I was fine. That was my survival technique. I thought that’s what the world was about. I thought everyone felt that way.”

After years of self-healing, she says she’s no no longer attached to that part of her past.

“It doesn’t scare me anymore. I still get emotional, cause I’m a cry baby, but it doesn’t feel like me anymore,” she says. “When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy, I’m at peace, and being at peace is far more satisfying than anything. You can say, ‘Ah, I like living here in this place, at this time, and I like who I am.’”

Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation Fall Symposium

9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (8 a.m. check in and coffee, 11:30 a.m. lunch), Wednesday, Oct. 19, Boise State Student Union Building. Workshops, discussion and Mariel Hemingway keynote speaker luncheon. $50 individual.