Richard Dreyfuss Opens Up About His Bipolar Disorder: ‘There’s No Shame in Having Depression’

Suzy Byrne
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Richard Dreyfuss's big screen successes are well known — the star of "Jaws," "Mr. Holland's Opus," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" won an Oscar for "The Goodbye Girl" — but his lifelong battle with mental illness isn't. Now he's been on a mission to change that and ignite a dialogue about mental illness.

The 66-year-old first went public with his bipolar disorder diagnosis in 2006 when he was interviewed for the documentary "The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive." Since then, he has been sharing his story in a low-key, down-to-earth way, appearing at health conferences around the country to discuss his experience with the brain disorder, which the National Institute of Mental Health says causes severe and "unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks," which can result in "damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide."

"There's no shame in having depression," Dreyfuss told People magazine at the Hope for Depression Research Foundation luncheon in New York City last week. "By telling my own story, I hope to help remove the stigma. It never should be something to hide."

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At the event, Dreyfuss shared his story, which began at age 14 when his moods first started becoming difficult to deal with. Another symptom that has tortured him throughout his life is anxiety.

"I trembled in fear," he told the audience at the lunch. "It's like the night before the test and you aren't really sure about the subject and this balloon of self-loathing starts to swell up fast in anticipation of failure. I lived that feeling everyday, every minute for my entire life."

The roller coaster of extreme highs and lows was impossible to manage. He described a high point when he won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1978 at the age of 30, saying, "I enjoyed turning down work as much as I enjoyed getting the job. I was living from thrill to thrill and nothing bad happened to me." However, while filming "Once Around" with Holly Hunter in 1991, his mood swings hurts his performance. "Had I not been depressed, I would have given a very different performance," he said.

Dreyfuss dulled his pain with excessive alcohol and drug use. He survived a terrible car accident in 1982, which occurred while he was under the influence, and he was later arrested for illegal possession of cocaine and Percodan, leading to a stint in rehab. (In a previous interview for the 2009 addiction book "Moments of Clarity," he said at this point in his life he had become "a board member and probably chairman of admissions for the A--holes Center.")

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The New York native also developed a professional reputation for being difficult. (In another interview, which took place with the Herald Tribune in 2012, Dreyfuss was asked about often being described as "irritating" in profiles done on him over the years. He admitted, "When [bipolar] is running you, you can be — at the least — irritating.")

Dreyfuss reached his lowest point in 1995 when he marriage to Jeramie Rain ended. She moved out, taking their three children, and he fell into a long-term depression.

"I felt divorce was a valid reason for being depressed, but I didn't know it would last as long as it lasted," he said. "I needed help. I didn't want to lose my children."

He noted that despite his debilitating sadness, he never considered taking his life because he loved his children too much. "I would have never committed suicide because my daughter would have been really pissed," he said. "I wouldn't want to hurt her. When you have a kid, no matter how much success or money you have, you have this love that is beyond the bounds and you would take a bullet for your child. So I didn't want to cause them any pain."

It was around this time that he started seeing a therapist and began treatment for his bipolar disorder. After trying different medications over a four-year period, he found the right combination which allows him to lead a normal life.

"I'm able to be Richard again," said Dreyfuss, who is now married to third wife Svetlana. "Things are great."

Dreyfuss isn't the only big movie star to shine a spotlight on depression. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has bipolar II disorder, went public about her battle in 2011. The actress, who is working through marital difficulties with Michael Douglas, has received in-patient treatment at mental health facilities to keep the disorder in check.

"If my revelation of having bipolar II has encouraged one person to seek help, then it is worth it," she has said.

The efforts of both Zeta-Jones and Dreyfuss to remove the stigma of this disorder are no doubt "worth it."