06/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mental Dis-Ease: PTSD: Suicides in Iraq

May is Mental Health Awareness Month so yesterday, on the Today Show, Joey Pantoliano talked about his own struggles with mental dis-ease as he likes to call it, "mental illness seems so permanent, not like the temporary state of moving in and out of depression that I actually expereince".

"Too often," says Pantoliano, " people who suffer from depression and other mental health issues stay silent because they don't want to "out" themselves. There is a stigma attached to brain dis-ease, that frightens people. It stains you, places you on the other side of the boundary that society draws between "us" and "them." You become one of "them," the "crazy" people who are cloaked in invisibility. But here's the problem: the boundary is not real; it's a myth. There is no separation between "us" and "them." We are them. If you aren't, then your mother or your best friend or your teacher is. Brain dis-ease touches each of our lives directly and indirectly. Once I learned that I had a brain disorder, I didn't make any attempts to keep it secret. I would talk about it openly with friends and colleagues. What surprised me was the number of people who, in response, would then tell me about their own diagnosis. That's what inspired me to create a foundation called "No Kidding, Me, Too" It's goal is to educate Americans about brain dis-ease and tear the stigma out of the closet, de-isolate it.... so that people will be surprised to find millions of others like themselves." No Kidding Me 2, is a celebrity-fueled advocacy effort to change the way society views mental illness. Some of the people joining him and serving on the advisory board are Jeff Bridges, Marcia Gay Harden, Patricia Cornwell, Harrison Ford, James Cameron and Robin Williams.

Last September, during "Suicide Prevention Week,' the military asked Joey to go to Iraq hoping that his "tough guy" reputation from playing a gangster on The Sopranos, might help soldiers to open up and share about their personal struggles. "This is the first war where our military is losing more GIs to suicide than they are to battle, "says Joey. " We were hearing that the post-traumatic stress and the feeling of powerlessness may not be entirely about being in battle. The kids that are completing their suicides tend to be Anglo-American, between 19 and 21 years old, first tour of duty within their first 6 months. The soldiers and officers that I talked to, a lot of their issues stem more from what's going on at home than what's going on there with the IED's. It's about situations and relationships at home."

You can see this in a 3-minute piece called "Between Iraq and a Hard Place" on that Joey put together from footage during his "Stomp the Stigma tour in Iraq" as well as a PSA with Harrison Ford, Chazz Palminteri, Joey and others who are trying to make mental dis-ease "cool".

Surrender to Win

"We went to Iraq through the USO to show the documentary and share our experiences with mental dis-ease, our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes, and to communicate the counter-intuitive message that they have to surrender to their dis-ease in order to win. There I was telling these warriors, who are there to win a war, that they must surrender to win.....that the more I talked about my own dis-ease and the more I surrendered to it, the less stressful it became. The military actually allowed us to say "surrender to win" in the program. It was a tall order to suggest in that context, nothing less than a complete mindset change. It turns out General Patton was wrong to slap that soldier (in the movie, that is), because that soldier was suffering from PTSD post traumatic stress disorder, and Patton thought that by smacking the kid it would help him to grow some balls."

"But." Says Joey, revealing one of the tragic "invisible" truths about mental illness, "the guy was as ill as someone with bandages. The only difference between him and another wounded soldier was that he didn't have the bandages to prove that he had the wound."

"The reception in Iraq was better than I could have imagined - shockingly wonderful. After seeing the movie, the GI's became intimate with us. They were sharing things with us that they wouldn't share with anyone else. We were one of them. They were one of us. This isn't a military disease after all. What's happening in the military is a microcosm of what's happening all across this country.

"We believe," says Pantoliano about the documentary, "that a young kid can see this movie and say, "wait a minute. Drugs are not the answer. I don't want to screw my brain up now. I don't want to increase my chances of being depressed later in life.( a possible side effect of adolescent drug abuse) Why do myself that kind of damage? When teens turn to drugs, they're literally taking the happiness they're going to need in their 30s and 40s and using it up in their teens. I'm talking about dopamine and seratonin, etc. This movie is telling them there's no shame in how they feel, they're in good company."

Click here to see footage from the documentary