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Mental Health Center

Joe Pantoliano: Mental Illness Hits Home

The award-winning actor talks to WebMD about his personal brushes with mental illness and why he's working to raise awareness.
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It brings people out of the woodwork?

Yeah. Fans will ask me what I'm up to, and I describe the movie and they'll say, "I'm in treatment right now." Depression is a big thing. I see that a lot.

For first-year college students, when most of these illnesses start to rear their ugly head, parents think that it's just a stage sometimes, like puberty. It goes by, and it becomes misdiagnosed.

As a child you suffered from dyslexia. How did you cope with that, and how did it affect your career?

When I was a kid, there wasn't a name for it. It wasn't an illness. My teachers ... they just basically said, "there's nothing wrong with him. He's just lazy and doesn't want to do the work."

I remember in the fourth grade my teacher taking my reading book away. She said if you are not going to have the decency to try to do the work, then you don't deserve to read. I just kind of slid through every year. I evolved and I created a tough-guy character. I did the senior class play, and I had to get my 12-year-old sister to help me to memorize the monologue that I needed to read, and then I pretended that I was reading it. I got the part, and my teachers then said, "you need to learn how to read." When I was 19, I went to a professional that evaluated me with a third-grade reading level. I had a lot to overcome. And it's a miracle that I did. In today's world I don't think I could have done it.

Why?

The competition [to be in show business] is so much greater now.

You're now an author and you collect rare and first-edition books. You've come a long way.

It's the gift of reading. I'm big into Harry Potter. I love that book. If only there had been something like that for me [as a kid] ... The first book I ever read was given to me by my history teacher after he saw me in the play. It was Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice because he knew I would relate to it. There was that, and The Valachi Papers and The Godfather, and then I got into Salinger. The books that I collect are the books that changed my life.

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