Maurice Benard understands the true meaning of life imitating art.
The longtime “General Hospital” actor, who is 58, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his early 20s and has been institutionalized twice. Benard, who has won two daytime Emmy awards for his work on the soap opera, has long used his platform to raise awareness of mental health issues, and encourage others to talk about it and seek treatment as needed.
“Considering I’ve been living with it (mental health issues) for 30 years, maybe more now, it means life to me,” said Benard, whose character on “General Hospital,” Sonny Corinthos, also has bipolar. The disorder causes dramatic mood swings, ranging from manic to depressive episodes, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. “[Mental health] means everything because it’s who I am, it’s who I’ve become. I’ve suffered a lot with it I’ve overcome it, and now I’m being able to help other people,” Benard added.
Gaining courage to speak out
When Benard was 21, he was put in a mental institution and tied down by his waist, wrists and ankles. During his acting career, someone told him not to reveal his bipolar diagnosis out of concern that the disorder would prevent him from landing new roles. But after contributing to a magazine and sharing details about his mental health, he received a letter from a fan who inspired him to do the opposite and raise his voice.
“[The fan] said his brother, who was bipolar, took a gun and shot himself,” Benard said, “and because of what he read from me, it’s helped him deal with his brother’s suicide. After that, I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna talk, and I did… and I haven’t shut up,” he said, laughing, “which is fine — and I’m still talking.”
In addition to interviews like these, Benard has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to discuss his mental health, and he wrote a “New York Times” bestselling book called “Nothing General About It,” in which he discusses his mental health journey among other subjects.
The initiative he considers his greatest accomplishment, however, is his YouTube channel State of Mind, in which he discusses mental health weekly. It currently has 30,500 subscribers. “I’m so proud of it because I get to talk to people who’ve been through what I’ve been through. I get to talk to people who haven’t been through what I’ve been through but want to learn — and it’s fantastic,” he said.
Inspiring others who are struggling
Benard’s advice for anyone trying to manage their mental health is first to accept who they are and then to talk about it. Also, seek help when you need to, he advised.
“I went through something recently through the pandemic, and even myself — who’s been dealing with this for so many years — I didn’t get help until it was almost too late,” he said, explaining that he waited four months to reach out to a professional. “So anyone who’s going through something that’s not normal or natural, go and get professional help.”
For parents whose children may be struggling with a mental health problem, he encouraged patience and love, and not aggression. “It’s a tough situation, but the reality is it’s not impossible,” Benard said. “I’ve proven that in 30 years of dealing with this [that] you can have a great life, you can have a productive life, and still have mental illness.”
He added that the pandemic was difficult for many people, including himself, but that one of its silver linings is that it’s brought mental health into the public conversation in a way he has never seen before. This has forced many people to face their mental health in a way they hadn’t previously. “It’s brought an awareness that I have not seen since I’ve been talking about mental illness,” Benard said.
He added: “Even though it’s difficult, it’s not impossible – that’s the message.”