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Mara Wilson discusses being diagnosed with mental illness aged 12

The former child actor, most recognisable as the wisecracking Matilda, speaks to Sabrina Barr about being diagnosed with OCD, depression and panic disorder as a child and the importance of breaking down the stigmas associated with mental health

Monday 06 April 2020 12:25 BST
Mara Wilson, ambassador for Okay to Say
Mara Wilson, ambassador for Okay to Say (Photo courtesy of Okay to Say, Jon Hatcher)

“I was always a very anxious child,” MMara Wilson says, minutes after our first introduction. It becomes clear from the very beginning of our interview that Wilson is as candid as they come. She’s prepared to bare all when it comes to her mental health, a topic of conversation that’s very close to her heart.

Meeting the former child actor is somewhat surreal. While there is a clear distinction between 31-year-old Mara and the telekinetic Matilda who she played in 1996, she emanates a level of intelligence, charisma and charm that one can’t help but compare to Roald Dahl’s beloved character.

The second I walk into the room to conduct our interview at a hotel near Tottenham Court Road, she lights up with a beaming smile, standing up to shake my hand and complimenting me on my choice of pink nail polish. More than two decades spent in the public eye has clearly left Wilson with impressive interpersonal skills and a very firm handshake.

Mara Wilson opens up about her mental health for Okay To Say

Many people would say that Mara Wilson shaped their childhood, starring in Mrs Doubtfire at six years old and taking on the titular role of Matilda just a few years later. However, she’s now helping to shape people’s present and future by raising awareness of mental health issues and sharing her own story as part of her new role as an ambassador for Texas-based charity Okay to Say.

Born the fourth of five children in Burbank, California, Wilson’s acting career began with a series of commercials, before being cast as Robin Williams’ daughter in the hit film about a father who dresses up as his family’s female, elderly housekeeper. Wilson’s journey to stardom took off rapidly from there, starring in a number of high-profile films in very quick succession of one another.

On the surface, Wilson was the epitome of a child star of the 1990s, globally recognised and universally loved. However, under the surface, her struggles with mental illness were steadily growing, exacerbated by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis in 1995 and death the following year.

Mara Wilson speaks to Sabrina Barr about her experiences with mental health issues (Photo courtesy of Okay to Say, Jon Hatcher)

Ahead of the Global Summit on Mental Health Culture Change taking part in London this week to mark World Mental Health Day, we spoke to Wilson all about the importance of detecting mental illness in children as early as possible, drawing on her own experiences, and the progression that still needs to be made to destigmatise mental health once and for all.

While one may assume that being on fast-paced film sets throughout her childhood may have caused her mental health to worsen, the truth was actually quite contrary, with Wilson describing the environment as “very free and supported, from what I can remember.”

It was only when shooting stopped for various film projects and Wilson had to return to the humdrum of everyday life that her anxiety began to take a stronger hold on her life. “I think that not having that in my life probably felt like coming down from some kind of high,” she says in retrospect, a pensive expression on her face.

After filming wrapped for Matilda in the mid-1990s, Wilson began to experience panic attacks for the first time. A few years later, at the age of 12, she was diagnosed with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), depression and panic disorder.

The signs that she had been suffering from mental health issues had been in clear sight for a number of years. Following the death of her mother, to whom Matilda was dedicated, Wilson began to experience symptoms indicative of a person with OCD.

“That’s when I started washing my hands obsessively until they were red and raw and chapped,” she explains. “That’s when I started thinking that certain numbers were good or bad, that’s when I started thinking ‘I can’t walk in that crack, I can’t walk through that door, or I have to do it a certain way’. That’s when it started really affecting me.”

One of Wilson’s primary aims as an ambassador for Okay to Say is to encourage people to learn how to detect mental illness among children as early as possible so as to make sure that they’re provided with the care and treatment that they need. For Wilson, finally receiving a medical diagnosis after years of panic attacks and anxiety gave her an enormous sense of relief. While she was often described as “anxious” throughout her formative years, she explains that adults were initially reluctant to have her formerly diagnosed.

“The day I got [a diagnosis] was one of the best days of my life, because I knew that I was not alone anymore,” she says with a smile stretching from ear to ear. “I knew that there were people out there that had what I had, and I knew that there was treatment for it. I was 12 years old and I was thrilled that I was finally diagnosed.”

Mental illness affects approximately one in 10 children and young people, as outlined by the Mental Health Foundation. However, the charity states that 70 per cent of children and young people living with a mental health issue did not receive treatment or care as early as possible.

One of the obstacles that people who suffer from mental illness face is the stigmatisation of mental health that still exists in today’s day and age, an issue that Wilson feels extremely passionate about. She rolls her eyes as I mention the flippant way in which many people reference “depression” and “OCD” in everyday conversation, evidently exasperated by the frequent improper use of the terms.

“It annoys me when people talk about OCD as a personality trait, because I think that one of the reasons that I didn’t get treatment for a long time is because I thought OCD was just an attribute,” Wilson says.

“People who are obsessive compulsive, they don’t like having things clean necessarily, or they don’t like washing their hands a lot. They don’t like these things - it’s that they have to, they need it. It’s not a preference thing, it’s a deep thing within them.”

A very significant aspect of the conversation surrounding mental health is the different way that men and women approach the topic. Charity Recovery Against Mental Health reports that women are more likely than men to receive treatment for a mental illness. However, this could be a case of women feeling more comfortable talking about their emotional wellbeing, with men frequently being taught growing up that talking openly about their mental state is a show of weakness.

I was intrigued to hear Wilson’s views on the way in which mental health is especially stigmatised around men. Her concise answer was symptomatic of a true wordsmith: “I think that women are not expected to be angry and men are only expected to be angry,” she says with a knowing glint in her eye.

A clear example of this is the recent comparison made between Serena Williams and Brett Kavanaugh, with the former expressing her anger during the US Open final and the latter expressing his during a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Funny how a black female tennis player is held to a higher standard to keep her emotions in check than a Supreme Court nominee,” former journalist Deborah Ross tweeted.

Wilson’s ability to string words together in a sharp-witted and epigrammatic manner has helped her build a very strong presence on social media, amassing a following of 420,000 on Twitter. While Wilson uses social media to make witty quips, connect with her fans and discuss important issues that she wants to shine a light on, she does acknowledge the negative impact that using social media excessively or improperly can have on a person’s emotional state.

“You can have real connections on social media but it isn’t real life, necessarily,” she says. “That is not who you are. That is just an extension of yourself and that is a representation of yourself.”

This week, in addition to the Global Summit on Mental Health Culture Change, Wilson and Okay to Say will also be attending Thrive LDN Culture, a film festival where participants aged between 15 and 24 are being encouraged to submit short films about their experiences with mental health issues.

While Okay to Say provides support and resources for those who are living with or suffering from mental illness, part of the charity’s aim is to also consider the family and friends of those affected.

Looking back on her childhood as a Hollywood starlet living with mental health issues that she didn’t fully understand, Wilson is emphatic that her relatives were as loving and supportive as they could have possibly been, especially considering the devastating impact that the loss of her mother had on her family.

Now looking ahead to the future, the author of Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame is full of verve and purpose as she embraces her role as a mental health campaigner, striving to make misconceptions attached to mental illness a thing of the past.

“I would say I’m optimistic. I definitely think it’s changed since I was first diagnosed. We still have a while to go, we still have disorders that we don’t understand,” she says. “We’ll talk about mental health but maybe not take action on it, but I am feeling optimistic about it.

“I am glad that I am able to help in any way."

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