Role Reversal

Actress Lorraine Bracco plays a psychiatrist on TV. She's also battled depression in her real life.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
4 min read

Lorraine Bracco, as psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos, HBO's smash hit, is cool and calm talking with Tony Soprano about the mobster's depression. But when she remembers the start of her own real-life battle with depression, her voice rises with passion.

"It hit me that it had been months since I felt anything. That I was just joyless," Bracco tells WebMD. "Finally I said, this is just not right. There is something really wrong here. A whole year of my life was lost. Too long! Too long to not live! "

She feels alive now. And she feels angry. Angry with herself about losing a year before she sought treatment. "It makes me laugh: I had this for a whole year, and the doctor was just two miles down the road," she says, not laughing.

Now Bracco is speaking out about her successful treatment. In 2005, she agreed to serve as a depression spokeswoman for the drug company Pfizer. And last summer, the TV psychiatrist gave a speech to an auditorium full of real psychiatrists at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. She urges others to recognize their depression -- and get help before they, too, waste part of their lives.

Bracco had all kinds of reasons to feel down. In the '90s-which she calls "a really lousy decade" she went through a very public divorce with actor Harvey Keitel. Eventually she was awarded sole custody of their daughter, Stella.

Based on unsubstantiated charges that Bracco's new husband, actor Edward James Olmos, had once fondled a teenage girl, Keitel later initiated a protracted custody battle. Bracco won -- but it left her bankrupt. Her relationship with Olmos ended. And she learned that Stella has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a serious illness. On top of it all, good acting roles became scarce.

Clinical depression isn't necessarily brought on by stress or sadness. Bracco's rough 10 years took a toll, of course, but didn't directly cause her depression. That came after Stella got better and after the role of Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos rejuvenated Bracco's career.

"A tough divorce, another major breakup, a major custody battle, and a very sick child -- that definitely contributed to it," she says. "But it was only after my life started getting back into order, when my life was on an upswing, that I took a downswing."

People feel the symptoms of depression in different ways. Some can't get out of bed. Others, like Bracco, go through the motions. "I was getting my kid to school and everything -- the house was in good shape. But I was not," she says.

Clinical depression isn't a mood. It's an illness that makes it impossible for a person to experience normal feelings. One in 20 Americans suffers depression each year. One in every 4 to 5 women and 1 in every 8 to 10 men develop depression in their lifetime.

In Bracco's case, what disappeared down the rabbit hole wasn't her life. It was her ability to live her life. "I felt very isolated and very lonely," she says. "I didn't get any joy out of life. I just did things. I felt I had this hump, and that was going to be my life."

Bracco desperately wanted change. She confided in a friend, who recommended that she see a therapist. But Bracco resisted. She thought she should be able to control her own feelings. And she worried incorrectly that antidepressants would dull her emotions, making it impossible to do her job.

Finally, she called her friend and got the name of a therapist. Making that first visit was the hardest step.

"Yes, it was very scary. But it was the moment I took charge," Bracco says. "Instead of letting all my problems -- my being miserable, my being unhappy -- lead my life, I realized then I was finally able to let my dreams lead my life."

The doctor gave the TV psychiatrist plenty of time to talk about her symptoms. Despite some initial reluctance, Bracco did agree to try an antidepressant.

In her therapy, Bracco got to the heart of her darkness and eventually, she says, she became more herself. "I felt a huge difference in my everyday life. Getting treatment put me on the road to recovery-to finding myself and being myself," she says.

Bracco was on antidepressant medication for 15 months. She stayed in talk therapy for two and a half years, seeing several different therapists. And her depression did not come back.

She doesn't identify her psychiatrists by name. But Bracco says you can see them very clearly when Dr. Melfi is doing good work with Tony Soprano. "Having firsthand experience as a patient helped me create a good character," she says. "I took the yin and yang of my male and female doctors and rolled them into one for Dr. Melfi. I did a lot of work to create Dr. Melfi.

"I have an understanding of what it is-the caretaker-patient relationship," she adds, to the enduring benefit of Tony Soprano, a roomful of psychiatrists, and Bracco herself.