"If I'm crying, they worry about if I'm okay and how they can help Mommy," actress Chyler Leigh tells PEOPLE of her three children
The Supergirl actress, who recently announced her collaboration with Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health as the initiative expanded to Instagram, is mom to daughters Anniston Kae, 10, and Taelyn Leigh, 13, plus son Noah Wilde, 16.
“They’re becoming aware [of my bipolar disorder]. My son knows the actual diagnosis,” Leigh, 37, tells PEOPLE of her oldest child with rocker husband Nathan West.
“[My kids] have their own diagnoses — not bipolar — but [our mental health] is very much a more prevalent conversation in the house right now, as they’ve gotten older and we’re able to communicate in a way that’s not scary,” Leigh says.
“They worry sometimes. If I’m crying, they worry about if I’m okay and how they can help Mommy,” the actress continues. “Both the girls struggle with anxiety. My 13-year-old, even just getting on a plane, she’s like, ‘Mommy, I need to know that you landed, I need to know that you’re okay,’ kind of just keeping tabs.”
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When it comes to their own neurological conditions, Leigh teaches her kids to view them as “superpowers” rather than detriments that will dictate the rest of their lives, and says the members of her family “[try to] not just focus on what the diagnosis is.”
“My 13-year-old is on the autism spectrum, very high-functioning … she’s trying to look it up and she’s like, ‘Oh my God, I have ASD so that means I’ve got all these problems and all these struggles!’ ” she explains. “I’m like, ‘No no no, that’s not how this works. Let’s think about [like] it’s more of a superpower than it is anything that’s going to stifle who you are.’ There’s lots of conversation in our house, and it’s at varying degrees of how they understand it.”
For Leigh and West, 41, it was a long, “very, very difficult journey” to learning how to cope as a family. She was first diagnosed with BD 10 years ago, and endured a hectic era of medication trial and error and a week-long hospitalization before finding a treatment plan that worked for her.
“Right before I was diagnosed, I was like, ‘I’m drowning,’ ” Leigh says, noting the stress of her demanding career, parenting “high-need” kids and “trying to make our marriage work.”
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“[Then,] I was on six different medications at one point. Some of them were countering each other — but it made me feel nothing, and that to me was more important than feeling happy or feeling sad. But, that being the case, I withdrew and I shut down,” she says. “Having such little kids and my husband who [was] dealing with so much with that, I just didn’t know how else to function.”
“And so I lied about a lot, I hid a lot,” the actress continues. “I kept to myself. And that caused an incredible amount of chaos and just destruction in the family.”
Now, Leigh is “at a really good place” and is able to stay “level” with the help of one medication, a strong community of support and taking care of herself “physically.” She hopes to help others manage their mental health and change the “negative stigma” surrounding illness through her advocacy work with Be Vocal.
“We have an incredible opportunity to change the narrative and change the conversation, and lead people to places that can encourage them and really take them where they need to go,” she says of the initiative.