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Why Supernatural Star Jared Padalecki Is Speaking Out About Mental Illness

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Both as Supernatural‘s Sam Winchester and in real life, Jared Padalecki hopes to save lives.

The actor, 32, has recently taken part in a campaign for To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit organization which aims to help those struggling with depression, addiction and suicidal ideation.

“Always Keep Fighting” is the slogan for his T-shirt campaign which has far exceeded its goal of 1,000 sold thanks to the cause’s message and thanks to his passionate fanbase (his face emblazoned on the front of the shirt probably hasn’t hurt).

In an exclusive chat with PEOPLE, Padalecki revealed why the campaign is so important to him as well as what’s coming up for his character on Supernatural, how he and costar Jensen Ackles mess with each other on set and whether you can expect to see him take part in a Gilmore Girls reunion.

On “Always Keep Fighting”

I Tweeted that I was going to talk to you and somebody reached out to me and wanted you to know that, as someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, they appreciate everything that you’re doing. What’s it like to have that kind of positive effect on your fanbase?
It’s really hard to put into words. It’s been amazing. Hopefully it’s helping to destigmatize these issues, because it’s all around us. It’s ubiquitous, and people hide it. If somebody has cancer, they’re not embarrassed to have cancer – they know it’s not their fault. They know it’s a struggle. But, for some reason, if someone says they’re depressed, they assume that people are going to look at them like they have three heads. Hopefully, this is helping to start a conversation.

Why did you decide to start the “Always Keep Fighting” campaign?
All of the cards fell in the right place. Specifically, [Arrow star] Stephen Amell did a few fundraisers through F— Cancer, and he approached me and told me that it’s remarkable how supportive the fans are and how much money and awareness they’re able to raise for these great causes. A month or so after we started talking about it, I received a phone call on New Year’s Day and I learned that my friend of 10 years had lost his battle with depression.

I’m not alone, here, and there are so many people out there who have experienced the same thing. I have friends and a life and people I work with and I get a lot of love and support – this campaign is more about those who don’t have as much of a support system as I do.

And why did you choose that slogan?
I used to work with somebody who had been sober for 20 years, and he told me that it’s a daily struggle – that he wakes up every morning knowing it’s going to be a battle. We were talking about maybe going with “Never Give Up,” but that just puts somebody on defense, like their only options are to get beaten down or to quit. It’s a proactive approach, and that’s what was important to me – if you think it’s just going to go away, it’s not going to. We need to take these things head-on and treat it like a fight.

People who are dealing with depression or addition or suicidal thoughts or mental illness they’re strong. You’re strong because you’ve been in this fight and you wake up thinking you’re going to beat it again today.

On Supernatural

Jared Padalecki (as Sam, left) and Jensen Ackles (as Dean) on <em>Supernatural</em>
We’re coming back to Supernatural following a bit of a break. Last we saw Dean, he was in danger of succumbing to the Mark of Cain. How are Sam and Cas going to help him through it?
It’s kind of funny to segue into Supernatural, because the show does actually deal with a lot of these kinds of issues – of somebody feeling like they’re being beaten down and feeling like they need to fight through it.

We do see Dean (Ackles) struggling with something that is seemingly larger than himself. In true Supernatural fashion, it’s going to take Cas (Misha Collins) and the help of some other characters that we know and love on the show. We’re still fighting. The Mark of Cain didn’t disappear and so we’re on to the next thing – we were all pretty certain that was going to be the cure, but it wasn’t. So, we’ve got to keep fighting.

This season has shown a lot of Dean’s journey, but what’s going on with Sam? Is he really ready for life as a go-to research resource, or is it in him to be a hunter until the end?
I think it’s in him to be a hunter ’til the end. We’ve seen that every time Sam or Dean try to leave the life for a little bit, they get pulled back in. The Winchester brothers are helpers by nature, and I don’t think they’d ever sit idly by and watch people get hurt or watch the world go to a dark place.

When I am playing Sam and he talks about wanting to be a researcher, I think that’s far more how he feels he can help the most. At least in the current situation if Sam has to hit the road to save somebody, that’s what he’s going to do. In the meantime, the Men of Letters library is pretty full and there might be some hidden gems in there!

You guys are kind of famous for torturing each other on set. Ackles directed an episode this season – did you do your best to ruin all of his coverage shots by making him laugh?
[Laughs] Kind of, yeah! I mean, any time Misha is across the lens from me, I try to make him laugh. It’s fun. I’ve gotten better at it, and now he kind of returns the favor!

It was Ackles’s birthday recently – did you give him a shirt with your face on it?
I didn’t have it yet! But you’d better believe he’s going to get his. What’s funny is that we’ve known each other for so long now We were flying from Austin to Vancouver, and I was watching something on my iPad and I wanted him to hear it, so I handed over my headphones. When he was done listening, he was like, “Those are great headphones. That’s my birthday present. Buy me those.” And I was like, “All right!” So, I ordered some and I’m just waiting for them to arrive.

That’s basically how I am with my husband.
[Laughs] I was like, “That’s great, dude. I was just going to buy you a six-pack and leave it in your trailer.” I think we buy more stuff for each other’s kids than we do for each other.

On Gilmore Girls

Jared Padalecki (as Dean) on <em>Gilmore Girls</em>
It’s been a while since Gilmore Girls hit Netflix, but I have to ask: Though you are a biased party, are you Team Dean or Team Jess?
I’m so Team Dean! Biased or not, I’m totally Team Dean. I do love Milo [Ventimiglia, who played Jess], though, and I think I’m hopefully going to see him this summer. There’s a Gilmore Girls reunion happening at the ATX Television Festival, and I would love to be a part of it if I’m invited. They didn’t invite me yet, so, hopefully I can go. I always think Dean is a good guy – a little simple around the edges – but he was a kid! I’m not gonna hold it against him.

(ETA: Padalecki will now be joining the Gilmore Girls reunion at the ATX Television Festival, according to a post on his Facebook page.)

The CW’s Supernatural moves to a new time on March 18 at 9 p.m. ET. You can contribute to the Always Keep Fighting campaign here.