The new face of the Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health campaign discloses her bipolar diagnosis to help us feel as empowered as the hero she plays on Supergirl.
Bipolar, Identity & the Roles We Play
Supergirl’s adoptive sister, Alexandra Danvers, MD, PhD, scientist and government agent, uses her genius-level smarts and kick-ass fighting skills to protect the earth—and her loved ones—from alien invasion and other threats.
Danvers is part of the central cast on the CW series Supergirl. She happens to be the character that actress Chyler Leigh (say her first name: KYE-ler) most relates to in her 20-plus years of acting and modeling. That includes her five-year stint as surgeon Lexie Grey on the hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy and its spin-off, Private Practice.
“Like [Danvers], I am still on a journey of discovering who I really am, and I am just getting a better sense of self,” she says. “I also know what it is like to have people who you love so ferociously that you would go to the ends of the earth to protect them.”
Advocacy & Acceptance
Leigh, 38, also shares the character’s passion for doing good and speaking her truth. That’s why she has joined up with Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health, a multi-platform, multi-year mental health initiative.
For the first time, she is going public about living with bipolar disorder in hopes that sharing her experience will help others feel less alone and more empowered. She was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in her late 20s but wasn’t ready to put it out there until now.
“I am a very quiet, reserved person, so that is why making this step in talking about where I am at took so long,” she explains.
“I am at a crossroads. Now is time for me to really stand up as myself and understand that if people in my life can’t accept me as who I am, then maybe they are not meant to be that influential in my life.”
Mood Swings & Searching for Control
Leigh says a long road of “severe ups and downs and some mistakes” led up to her eventual diagnosis. She has been open about her early struggles with substance use and eating—issues that are familiar in the bipolar community. She describes them as coping methods, however unhealthy, in the years before she got effective treatment and accurate advice about managing bipolar.
“Drinking and using drugs was a big part of it in the sense of trying to numb yourself,” explains Leigh, who has been sober since 2001. “And an eating disorder is trying to find pockets of control when you feel like everything is out of control.”
With 20/20 hindsight, Leigh notes telltale symptoms such as explosive rage, recklessness, trouble sleeping, and depression in her teen years.
“I didn’t know quite how to put my finger on [what was happening] as there was always so much damage control in my house already,” she reflects.
She’s referring to the fallout from her mother’s unstable moods. Her mom also has bipolar disorder, but it wasn’t well-controlled while Leigh and her brother were growing up. Leigh told Prevention magazine that having to step up when her mother couldn’t left little room for her own feelings.
Those memories left Leigh with “a bad taste in my mouth” when the actress got her own bipolar diagnosis. That initial reaction gave way to recognition that knowledge is power.
“Once I started to accept my diagnosis, I could say, ‘OK, this is my diagnosis, but it doesn’t define me, it just gives me guidelines,’” she says.
With a label to explain her intense emotions and pressurized energy, “I felt like I had something that I could connect to and something that I could find more information about.”
Leigh also came to see she has access to resources that weren’t available to her mother. There are more treatment options, plus a better understanding of the importance of self-care—something Leigh is talking about through her involvement with Be Vocal.
Motherhood, Meditation & “Me Time”
Leigh continues to hone her own coping and self-care skills to complement her treatment regimen. She’s been practicing meditation and admits it is not easy for her.
“I am still just trying to slow down and be quiet. I have not yet mastered that and it is something I am very much working on,” she says. On a positive note, “I got past the ‘five-second moment,’ where I can shut my brain down for a solid five seconds and not think of a million other things that are going on.”
That’s no easy feat. With her family and a busy career to manage, Leigh has to sneak “me time” to decompress and be still.
“I have to find time to take a breath—even if that means a longer bathroom trip than normal.”
Leigh and her husband, actor Nathan West, have three children: Noah, Taelyn, and Anniston. The couple married in 2002, when Leigh was 20, and started their family right away. By the time she left Grey’s Anatomy in 2012, she was wrangling a preschooler and two kids in grade school.
For most of her 20s, the needs of those close to her once again pushed Leigh’s own issues into the background, even as her mood swings escalated. The kids all have behavioral and physical health challenges of their own. Leigh’s lighthearted frankness in speaking about that encapsulates Be Vocal’s mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.
“We are chock-full of nuts, like the mixed nuts that you get on the airplane. We are all a different kind of nut,” she says, adding fancifully: “I was a pistachio, shelled, but now I am an unshelled pistachio.”
Though she’s only recently shed her protective shell in the wider world, she’s more open with her family and trusted friends.
“Being able to talk about my bipolar diagnosis with people who I know and trust is such a big part of healing,” she says.
There are times when she relies on friends and loved ones to hold her up. She and West have gone through hard times together as troubled young adults, overwhelmed parents, and partners dealing with Leigh’s bipolar. Now she calls West the “greatest support on the planet.”
Finding Stability in Faith
Their Christian faith remains an important source of strength, too. When she and West met, they both tried to escape dysfunctional family backgrounds by means of drink and drugs. Addicted and unwell, they found direction at a “really awesome church” and remain active in their nondenominational congregation.
Leigh is working hard to create a different family environment for her own kids than the one she grew up in—one that is open and honest about emotional wellness. The message she consistently delivers: “It’s OK to be not OK and it’s OK to be upset and it’s OK to be mad about something, but it’s how we learn to handle ourselves and cope with where we are at that matters.”
Treatment, Support & Self-Care
Another self-care challenge for Leigh: Getting a good night’s sleep. Most of the time, she explains, “I run on ‘on.’ … My mind doesn’t stop, and I am constantly talking to myself or thinking about things that need to get done. I try my best with a sleep regimen, but it’s a little bit hard for me to wind down.”
Her chosen career has been a safety valve for amped-up feelings, irritability, and excess energy.
“When I am working, I can expel all the energy I have … to do a great performance,” she explains.
On the other hand, she continues, “as an actress, you can’t operate on zero and you have to push yourself through sometimes.… Some days are struggles and [then] I have a wellspring of emotion to tap.”
As for the regular exercise that’s an important part of self-care, Leigh gets a lot of physical activity on the Supergirl set. She’s been channeling Alexandra Danvers since Supergirl launched in 2015, although at first she wasn’t sure she was cut out for all the jumping, punching, and roundhouse kicks. (In January, the show was renewed for a sixth season.)
“I happen to work on an action-packed show, so I get to climb several sets of stairs in 2½-inch wedge shoes and I’m moving all day long,” explains the actress, who does as many of her own stunts as she’s allowed.
Another plus about her job: The cast and crew of Supergirl have been incredibly supportive, she says: “We are all big advocates for speaking up and being mindful of where you are at [in life].”
In fact, co-star Chris Wood (Mon-El) and his wife, Melissa Benoist (Supergirl herself), joined forces with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to launch the I Don’t Mind anti-stigma campaign in 2017. Benoist disclosed a history of depression dating to her teens.
“There’s always a way through it and there’s always someone ready and willing to listen. You just have to know that you don’t have to feel ashamed,” Benoist urged at the time.
Leigh is totally on that bandwagon. Speaking out is a way for her to help others, but she says speaking up is the best thing to do for yourself. Her advice to those who are struggling: Talk to somebody you love. Trust in a health-care professional, co-worker, family member, friend, or clergy member, and let them know what is going on with you.
Part of Be Vocal’s mission is to make it easier for people to share their stories and diagnoses with friends and co-workers. That’s not to say everyone has to open up, now or ever.
“There shouldn’t be any pressure to have to say where you are at or tell your story,” Leigh notes.
With her treatment plan, social support, and self-care efforts, Leigh says she’s in a good place these days physically and mentally. As they say on Supergirl, all is right with worlds.
Add one more similarity between Leigh and her character: “We are both full of hope and doing good amid a lot of chaos.”
• • • • •
Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health
Since 2015, Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health, has pursued its mission to change how mental health is portrayed and discussed, and to make it easier for individuals to talk about their own mental wellness challenges if and when they choose to do so.
The Be Vocal website (bevocalspeakup.com) offers resources, tools, and prompts to get this difficult conversation started.
A new Instagram presence, @bevocal.speakup, exemplifies Be Vocal’s campaign to promote a healthy, mindful social media experience.
Social media tip sheets provide advice on avoiding negative and triggering material (including how to set the manual filter tool to screen out specific keywords or terms), creating a healthier online environment (use nonjudgmental, “people-first” language), and providing support when someone seems to be in need (watch for certain phrases and hashtags that indicate someone is at risk).
Another aspect of Be Vocal involves empowering people living with mental health conditions to speak up as a community to improve mental health policies.
Be Vocal is an initiative of Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc. in partnership with six leading mental health advocacy organizations: AFSP, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, The Jed Foundation, Mental Health America, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, and The National Council for Behavioral Health.
Printed as “Supergirl Actor Chyler Leigh: Fighting the Good Fight,” Spring 2020
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