Thursday, July 24, 2008

Boston ‘Sopranos’ star tackles issue of mental illnes

By Tenley Woodman

Photo by Ted Fitzgerald

Paging Dr. Melfi.
Former “Sopranos” bad guy Joe Pantoliano wants to whack the stigma from mental illness.
The actor was at McLean Hospital in Belmont last week interviewing doctors and patients for a documentary about clinical depression in America and the roadblocks to recovery.

Pantoliano, who was diagnosed with depression three years ago, founded the nonprofit organization No Kidding, Me Too! to help counter the negative image surrounding mental health issues. The documentary is part of that effort.

“Why is it I’m discriminated against when I take the anti-depressants, but not when I take the Lipitor? The culture is OK with me taking an erectile dysfunction remedy, but not with the (anti-depressants),” said Pantoliano between shooting scenes.

According to the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, 18.8 million adult Americans suffer from depression.

Despite his recent diagnosis, Pantoliano said he had been dealing with depression for years before he sought help.

“I remember having my first nervous breakdown when I was 21 years old,” said the 56-year-old father of three. “I was on my knees, which was called for in the play. I got so frustrated that during the scene I started banging my head against the floor and I scratched my face and I broke skin and drew blood.”

“I had a panic attack, something I used to see my mother do all the time,” he said.

While at McLean, Pantoliano underwent a brain scan to compare a healthy brain with one of a depressed person.

The work being done in the neurology department at McLean Hospital is just one part of the story Pantoliano wants to tell in the documentary.

“If my insurance company were willing to pay for my treatment of $1,200 month, $14,000 a year for my mental health, it’s like putting a pacemaker in my heart. My research is telling me that if there is a bad guy in any of this it is the insurance companies,” said the New Jersey native.

Pantoliano said that despite his celebrity and numerous film credits, even he cannot afford the coverage he needs.

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