Glenn Close says the bevy of headline-making tragedies have perpetuated the stigma associated with mental illness
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After her sister Jessie confided her suicidal thoughts to her over a decade ago, Glenn Close set out on a journey to end the destructive stigma attached to mental illnesses.

Helping Jessie cope with bipolar disorder inspired the now 68-year-old actress to co-found the nonprofit Bring Change 2 Mind, which works to end discrimination against the mentally ill.

Attending the WebMD Health Hero Awards Thursday night in N.Y.C. alongside sister Jessie, Close tells PEOPLE one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the issue “is that people with mental illness are dangerous.”

“There are so many headlines and so many tragedies that have happened because there is no system in our country that will help those people from falling through the net, from becoming isolated,” she also says. “But [the number of mentally ill people who commit crimes] is a very, very small percentage, but unfortunately it leads to other people getting hurt and it makes our job a little bit more difficult because it can build up the stigma.”

The actress and activist points out that fear of mental illness is nothing new.

“Over the centuries there have been stigmas and fears about people whose mind makes them act differently,” she says.

Close and Jessie opened up to PEOPLE last year about their family’s struggle with mental illness and how they’ve supported each other. Now, Close says she remains optimistic about developments in treatments, and hopes to spread awareness of the options available to those suffering from mental health conditions.

“The fact is you are not your illness,” she says. “You can get help, there is medication, there is a huge revolution in genetic research that will help actually pinpoint genes that are causing these illnesses.”

“Just like cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s we have to embrace the fact that [mental illness] is part of the human condition and not condemn people,” she adds.