VALPARAISO — Mariel Hemingway said she comes from "generations of suicide."

Her grandfather — the writer Ernest Hemingway — killed himself. Her great-great-grandfather, her great-grandfather, a great-aunt, a great-uncle, an uncle, a cousin and a sister all took their own lives as well.

Growing up, she said, this inspired in her a "tremendous amount of fear."

"I lived in the shadow of knowing that was an option for me and my family, and that was scary," she said.

Her upbringing was chaotic as well. Her family would regularly have what they called "wine time," she said. The youngest sibling, she was left to clean up the mess of what ensued with all the drinking: the broken glass, the blood. As a child, she also took care of her mother, who had cancer.

So she had to grow up fast. Still, she became determined — obsessed might be a better word — not to end up like so many of her relatives.

The Oscar-nominated actress shared her story of how she was able to avoid those pitfalls Friday at Valparaiso University for the sixth annual Indiana Suicide Prevention Conference, presented by Mental Health America of Indiana. The event, which was attended by hundreds of people from the mental health field, also included presentations on such topics as how schools can prevent suicide, how to reduce loneliness and isolation, and how to recover from the loss of a loved one who died from suicide.

Hemingway, now 57, said she tried everything she could to not become another statistic: exercising all the time, eating every kind of diet imaginable, going to doctors and alternative "healers."

"I've been in sweat lodges ... I've put dots on my head and chanted ... I've done primal scream therapy," she said.

Throughout this period, she now admits, she was always looking for something external, though never inside herself.

The real breakthrough came when she was in her mid-40s, and took a trip to India, stopping to visit the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile there.

At one point, she recalled, "He puts his hand on my hand and looks me in the eye and says, 'You're OK' ... and he smiled and bowed his head. In the moment he said that, I realized it was time: I am OK."

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Her mission in life now, she says, "is to tell everybody they are OK."

She has become a mental health advocate, speaking at similar conferences across the country. She has written a book and starred in a documentary about her family's struggles with mental illness. She is producing a television series about preventing suicide in teens.

"There's a path to recovery. There is a path to your balance and health," she noted. "That is yours alone."

While she acknowledges that everyone's path to mental wellness is individualized, she had a few recommendations for getting there.

"We need to learn how to breathe," she said. At the beginning of her presentation, she had everyone close their eyes, take three deep breaths and think of someone they were grateful for.

When people are in a crisis, she said, they tend to breathe shallow or not at all.

She also suggested exercising, but outdoors. "Get outside and walk around your block," she said.

And she advised people to go into their backyards or a park barefoot.

So-called "earthing," she said, can reduce inflammation by directly connecting people to the frequencies of the planet.

"We have to honor our bodies," she said.

She also preached the importance of self-love. "If you don't love yourself, you can't help anyone. You can't love anyone," she said.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.