WASHINGTON - Joe "Joey Pants" Pantoliano, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Ralphie on
, spoke at a congressional briefing on the stigma of mental illness yesterday. So did the actress Marcia Gay Harden. And Minnesota Rep. Jim Ramstad.
But it was 18-year-old Jordan Burnham, sitting in his wheelchair and brushing back his tears, who received the only standing ovation for his remarks.
It has been eight months since Burnham jumped from the ninth floor of his King of Prussia apartment building in a suicide attempt he miraculously survived.
He is urging that the stigma surrounding depression and suicidal thoughts be removed.
"I'd like to share a story of two frustrated parents," he began in a hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building, "frustrated because their son suffered from depression. The mother, sitting down thinking of every way to help him. The father, on his way home, thinking the same thing. Both parents then heard the sirens outside of their apartment."
Burnham went on to tell an audience of advocates, reporters and congressional staffers the story of how he jumped on Sept. 28, how he was struggling with depression, how he felt hopeless and helpless and hated himself so much that he went out a window.
"There are millions of people that will have the same emotions and thoughts I had that night, but with your help, the outcome does not have to be identical," he said.
Burnham urged Congress and everyone in the room to help young people with depression and suicidal thoughts "replace their feeling of embarrassment, shame and defeat" with a feeling of hope and acceptance. Young people must be able to talk about suicide and admit feeling suicidal at times without the shame of sounding crazy, he said.
Burnham was being treated for depression when he jumped, but he said he had never talked openly and honestly with therapists because he would never admit he felt suicidal.
Pantoliano suffered from mental illness for many years, and after his diagnosis and treatment he founded No Kidding, Me Too!, an organization dedicated to removing the stigma of mental illness. He said two-thirds of Americans who need treatment for mental illness do not get it because of the stigma. "We don't blame people for having diabetes or cancer," he said. "We want the brain to have the same constitutional rights as the gall bladder."
Pantoliano and Burnham met May 12 at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, where the actor spoke as part of a large mental-health forum sponsored by Minding Your Mind, a local foundation also committed to ending stigma about mental illness.
Burnham and his family had attended just to listen and learn. But at the end, Burnham asked Pantoliano how young people could eliminate the stigma about suicidal depression. Pantoliano was so impressed, he tracked Burnham down and invited him to Washington.
"He's got an incredible story," Pantoliano said. "I don't think kids want to hear from old people. He's representative of this message for his generation."
Burnham, whose story was first told in The Inquirer on Jan. 20, still has an immensely challenging recovery ahead of him. Though he spoke at the briefing in his wheelchair, he vows to walk with two canes at his graduation from Upper Merion High School on June 10 and dance at his senior prom June 6.
Not only did he receive a standing ovation for his remarks, but he also hobnobbed Wednesday evening with the actress Sarah Roemer and the actor Joseph Cross, among others.
Three times Burnham yesterday was kissed by Harden - once before the actress spoke and twice after he spoke. And the invitations to speak again, from heads of national mental-health organizations, kept coming after he was finished.
A. Kathryn Power, director of the federal Center for Mental Health Services, called him an articulate speaker and said she'd be in touch.
Burnham said he was going to go with the flow, try to tell his story, and help others get help whenever he was asked.
His parents, Georgette and Earl, and his aunt Simone Spaulding Cephas said that they were blown away by how fast things had happened, that it seemed he had only just left the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he fought for his life for more than three months.
"I think this is his calling," his mother said.