Speak Up! Actor Joe Pantoliano touts mental health discussion at Bipolar Foundation luncheon in La Jolla

Joe Pantoliano, the actor known for his roles in “Risky Business,” “The Sopranos,” “The Fugitive,” “The Matrix” and “Memento,” spoke in La Jolla Oct. 8 at the International Bipolar Foundation luncheon to address the importance of open and non-judgmental dialogue when discussing mental illness.

In 2006, Pantoliano produced and starred in “Canvas” alongside Marcia Gay Harden, the story of a family impacted by mental illness, and based on a true story.

Inspired by that role, he founded “No Kidding, Me Too,” a nonprofit dedicated to removing shame or embarrassment when talking about mental illness, and directed a documentary of the same name.

By sharing his personal struggle with lifelong depression and addiction, he said he hopes to encourage others to do the same.

“Living in secrecy and shame from the discrimination that shrouds (mental illness) has got to end. I don’t know why there is so much shame in having what a lot of people have. I just don’t get it,” he said.

Pantoliano explained that although his career was going strong, there was “an emptiness” inside him and a pain he didn’t want to feel. So he turned to drugs and alcohol, at one time taking 25 Vicodin a day.

“Mental disease and addiction go hand in hand, and in my case, my addictions were born out of my emotional disease and emotional unbalance,” he said. “For me, drugs and alcohol were painkillers. What I was doing was trying to avoid a pain inside of me and I was looking for a way out.”

Pantoliano talked openly and candidly about his experiences, including his challenge with dyslexia as a child. “When I was auditioning for a high school play, I had to have my sister read the play to me and I would memorize the part I was auditioning for and I pretended I was reading off the page,” he said. “I did that for 15 years.”

Happy to share his story, he added, “The more we talk about this, the less shame there will be. We all have our stories to tell and when we share our stories we feel less alone.” Pantoliano had the opportunity to share his story through 12-step recovery programs, where, he said “people know what its like to be you and be in your head.”

Now sober, he said he believes the power of recovery programs and “finding your tribe,” but also believes in preventing the sense of stigma in children.

“People see it as a reflection of themselves when their child is diagnosed with something. They ask themselves what they did wrong. I think (a better idea) is early prevention,” he said “Starting with kids as young as preschool, teach them that it’s cool to have feelings. Make it socially acceptable to have emotions.”

He contends that children need to be told it is OK to have and express their positive and negative emotions; otherwise they might turn to drugs to avoid feeling them.

Pantoliano’s lecture, and the luncheon itself, was held the day before National Bipolar Awareness Day, and the kickoff of the Say It Forward campaign.

With the campaign, which closed Oct. 12, those with mental health issues were encouraged to use social media to share their stories using the #SayItForward to educate their friends about the realities of mental health.

In 2012, The Say It Forward campaign reached 10,000 people and in 2013, more than one million people. Numbers for the 2014 campaign are still coming in.

International Bipolar Foundation co- founder Muffy Walker said “The concept ‘pay it forward’ means to perform a selfless good deed for someone, ‘Say It Forward’ does the same by speaking out against stigma. ‘Say It Forward’ will encourage people to bust it and show the world that mental conditions such as bipolar disorder can affect anyone and there is no shame in it.”

In an ongoing effort, Walker also announced the Make Someone Happy campaign, and challenged each attendee to make three people happy. To help, the Bipolar Foundation distributed red clown noses, and asked guests to put the nose on and send a photo to someone who could use a laugh.

The International Bipolar Foundation provides free and globally accessible resources for mental health support. It also hosts quarterly lectures in La Jolla, and an annual “Behind the Mask” gala in May.

Last year, David Russell, writer-director of “Silver Linings Playbook” was honored. This year’s event, “changing the game of stigma,” promises to be big, with Walker hinting that NBA basketball player Metta World Peace (born Ron Artest) will attend.

On the Web

■ Bipolar Foundation: IBPF.org

■ No Kidding, Me Too: nkm2.org

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