After 'the most public freak-out in history,' Margot Kidder became one of Hollywood's most prominent mental health advocates

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Margot Kidder leaves the Westside Theater in New York after a performance of <em>The Vagina Monologues</em>, December 2002. (Photo: Derek Storm/FilmMagic)
Margot Kidder leaves the Westside Theater in New York after a performance of The Vagina Monologues, December 2002. (Photo: Derek Storm/FilmMagic)

Margot Kidder already had had a long, successful career — and four Superman flicks under her belt — when, in 1996, she suffered a very public mental breakdown.

The actress, who had a long list of headline-making personal issues, went missing for several days after being dropped off at LAX airport en route to Arizona to teach an acting class. The Canadian-born Kidder, who will forever be remembered for playing Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve in Superman, was discovered “disheveled” and “in obvious mental distress” in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, where she was living in a cardboard box in the bushes behind a house. According to police, caps on her teeth were missing, and she was wearing cast-off clothing. She was bruised and scratched, and had cut off her own hair with a razor blade. She was telling people that her ex-husband was trying to murder her. Kidder was taken to a hospital on a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation.

News reports from the time:

A few months later, Kidder — who long resided in Livingston, Mont., where she died on Sunday at the age of 69 — spoke out to People magazine, describing the horrible incident (during which she said she also thwarted an attempted rape) — as “the most public freak-out in history.” She said, “I was like one of those ladies you see talking to the space aliens on the street corner in New York.”

Kidder said that while she very publicity dealt with an array of problems prior to her breakdown — drug and alcohol addictions; divorces; high-profile romances, including with Richard Pryor and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau; an auto accident that left her partially paralyzed and bankrupt — at the root of all her trouble was mental illness, specifically manic-depressive disorder, which is now known as bipolar disorder. She described “mood swings that could knock over a building” but said that, despite being diagnosed eight years earlier, she refused to accept the finding — or to take the recommended treatment, lithium. However, while recovering from her public breakdown, on an island near Vancouver, she was introduced to author Kay Redfield Jamison’s writings, which centered around bipolar disorder, and a lightbulb went off. “Finally,” she said, “I was able to accept the diagnosis.”

She spoke about going missing during a November 1996 appearance on The Tonight Show:

While there was speculation that her career was ruined, Kidder — who was politically active throughout her life — made the most of being the new poster child for mental health. Just a few years later, in 2001, she was described by the Los Angeles Times as a “mental-health advocate.” She had recently picked up the Courage in Mental Health Award from the California Women’s Mental Health Policy Council for being courageous in speaking out about mental illness — something few celebrities were willing to do at the time.

Kidder spoke about her lifelong struggle, which she noticed when she was just 10, writing in her diary that she thought she was going crazy. “I knew I was different, had these mind flights that other people didn’t seem to have. And I had deep depressions,” she told the Times.

The <em>New York Daily News</em> on April 26, 1996, featured a story about Margot Kidder’s disappearance along with headlines about Macaulay Culkin and Susan Sarandon. (Photo: N.Y. Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
The New York Daily News on April 26, 1996, featured a story about Margot Kidder’s disappearance along with headlines about Macaulay Culkin and Susan Sarandon. (Photo: N.Y. Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

She talked about hiding her illness from teachers, parents, and peers in her People interview. At just 14, she swallowed a handful of codeine pills because a boyfriend had dumped her. “It never occurred to anyone to send me to a shrink,” she told People. “I was just a teenager with a broken heart.” She turned to acting because she thought it helped “let my real self out … and no one would know it was me.” By 21 she started seeing psychiatrists for her mood swings but never trusted their approaches to her treatment.

She told the Guardian in 2005, “What happened to me — the biggest nervous breakdown in history, bar possibly Vivien Leigh’s — is not so uncommon. I’ve had thousands of supportive letters from all over the world. It’s just that mine was public. If you’re gonna fall apart, do it in your own bedroom.” 

She continued, “Horrifying as it was to crack up in the public eye, it made me look at myself and fix it. People were exploitative; that’s human nature. I’ll tell you, being pretty crazy while being chased by the National Enquirer is not good. … But you take the cards you’re dealt, and I got better. I’m now ferociously healthy in body and mind. You couldn’t pay me to go near a psychiatrist again. Stopping seeing them was my first step to getting well.” A year later marked a decade since she had had a manic episode.

Kidder, who continued to do work for mental wellness campaigns and charities throughout her life, often spoke out about her approach to living with mental illness. In a 2006 interview in the Montreal Gazette, she said that traditional psychiatry didn’t work for her and that her therapy included vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. She was later appointed as the national spokesperson for AlternativeMentalHealth.com, which focused on non-drug mental health treatments.

This photo of Kidder was widely circulated after she went missing in 1996. (Photo: File/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo of Kidder was widely circulated after she went missing in 1996. (Photo: File/AFP/Getty Images)

Just a few years ago, during an appearance on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, she talked about her own path with mental health. After saying she was tired of people talking about her breakdown, she said, “It’s old news that I flipped out almost 17 years ago now,” in a way that only she could. “Still, I have people in airports going, ‘Are you OK?’ It’s sort of sweet and touching, but at the same time you want to go, ‘It was 17 years ago!’”

She continued, “I feel very lucky that I got the kind of help that I did. … People who didn’t insist that I got drugged to the gills with a lot of mind-numbing things that basically turn you into a vegetable and who taught me how to get better naturally. So I feel really, really blessed by that.”

Kidder went on to talk about what was being left out of the conversation about mental health, and it was that it should be considered a regular part of a person’s health. “Your brain is an organ of your body, and therefore if there is something sick in your body, chances are there is something sick in your brain, and that you heal the two of them at the same time.”

Kidder brought the topic of living with bipolar to the forefront — not unlike Star Wars legend Carrie Fisher, who also had the disorder, and Patty Duke, both of whom died in 2016. That has led to younger stars today — like Demi Lovato, 25 — being able to speak out about living with it.

But as we’ve learned, it’s still not easy to discuss it publicly. Mariah Carey, 48, just shared for the first time in April that she too lives with bipolar disorder — something she was diagnosed with after her 2001 breakdown but never revealed.

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