On weekdays, you can catch actor Maurice Benard at “General Hospital,” where he’s played mob boss Sonny Corinthos for nearly 30 years. However, on Sundays, you’ll find him sitting in a studio built by his wife on YouTube, where he interviews friends, classmates, and family members about a variety of topics, often related to mental health.
Benard’s weekly web series “State of Mind,” began in the midst of some of the darkest days of the pandemic for the actor and has grown into a powerful outlet for his work as a mental health advocate.
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“It started one night, I was in bed. I woke up and had an anxiety attack and decided to film it,” Benard recalls on a recent phone call. At the same time, he saw Steve Hardy make a joke on television about how people film everything they own and post on Instagram. “I thought, Oh my gosh, here I am doing it,” he says. Following that incident, Benard began posting weekly conversations about his mental health on Instagram before moving to YouTube, where he built up more than 70,000 subscribers.
“A lot of fans were from ‘General Hospital’, but then ‘State of Mind’ started getting its fans, which is interesting now,” he says. “A lot of people just talk to me about mental health, not ‘general hospital,’ which is amazing. I’m very proud of that.”
At the start of the pandemic, Benard released his memoir “Nothing General About It: How Love (And Lithium) Saved Me On And Off ‘General Hospital’.” In view of COVID-19.
“During the closure of my book and GH and the pandemic, I had this anxiety that was fatal,” he says. “Awful. I’m talking every day, don’t want to be on this earth. I went through this for four months while I was promoting my book.”
Still, he kept up with his mental health updates. “It was very difficult, but every Sunday, I would get in the car and do ‘state of mind,'” Benard says. “I only missed Sundays when, literally, I couldn’t get out of bed. Then, after four months of that crippling feeling, I got help. Professional help.”
Benard, who suffers from bipolar disorder, has been talking about mental health for years. His “General Hospital” character, Sonny, also struggles with bipolar disorder. “When I started playing Sonny as bipolar, people didn’t know what he was,” says Benard.
But he says soap operas are uniquely capable of handling challenging real-world subjects. This allowed the show to explore Sony’s struggles in a story that raged over the course of weeks or months and remained part of the canon for decades.
“The soap opera does these topics better than anyone because you can do it in real time,” says Benard.
Recently, the audience has seen the beloved character stop drinking to take better care of his mental health. “A lot of people have been on me forever about drinking, sony drinking. You shouldn’t drink while on medication,” Benard says. He brought it up with the show’s executive producer, Frank Valentini, who co-wrote it on the show.
“I’ve done a lot of stories and it really educates people,” Benard says, noting that Sonny’s recent mental health struggles were close to his experience. “The way he wrote it was real accurate.”
“State of Mind” allows Benard to continue the conversation about mental health in a different way than “General Hospital”. He talks openly about his personal experiences and gently encourages guests to do so in interviews that feel like intimate conversations. Benard says that he goes for interviews like a conversation on a first date.
“If you’re watching ‘State of Mind’ and you’re mentally ill and you don’t talk about it, you can look and go, ‘Exactly I feel like that’ and ‘They’re fine. Said exactly what I wanted to say,'” explains Benard. “Then you might not feel lonely, which is a beautiful thing.”
The web series came together at a touching time. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a brief indicating that there was a 25% increase in anxiety and depression globally in the year following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Benard says he believes the pandemic has created a situation where people “can’t run away” from mental health issues. “I feel sorry for those who felt this way the first time around, because they were probably scared,” he says. “You couldn’t leave the house. You were stuck in your house.”
For Benard, the length of the stay at home also posed challenges. “With me, I tried never to have my kids see me in that state,” he says. “During the pandemic, I had no choice, because I couldn’t run, so, they had to see me in that — no pun intended — state of mind. It’s tough.”
But he says the pandemic has also raised awareness of mental health and may have resulted in an increased audience for “State of Mind.” However, how this will continue to grow remains to be seen.
“The more people you reach, the more people you help,” Benard says.
But there’s something to be said about keeping the show in its current location.
“It’s like my baby and so I think people feel more secure, because it’s not a big deal, it’s a small thing in its own right,” he says. “I just love where I am.”