According to the CDC, one in five Americans will experience mental illness each year and among them is Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who was recently hospitalized for clinical depression.
In response, New York Congressman Ritchie Torres has opened about his own mental health struggles. Torres spoke to “GMA3” hosts DeMarco Morgan and Eva Pilgrim about his experience with depression and how it has motivated him to be a champion for more mental health awareness and resources.
EVA PILGRIM: You say that you would not be alive, let alone in Congress, if it was not for mental health care. Talk to us about your journey and why you felt like you need to share it now.
RITCHIE TORRES: More than 15 years ago, I was at the lowest point of my life. I had dropped out of college. I found myself struggling with depression. There were moments when I thought of even taking my own life, because I felt as if the world around me had collapsed. I had to be hospitalized. And so I never thought in my wildest dreams, seven years later, I’d become the youngest elected official in New York City. And then today, I would be before you as a United States congressman. And I would not be alive were it not for the power of mental health care. And I feel like I have an obligation to tell my story in the hopes of breaking the shame and silence, and stigma that too often surrounds the subject of mental health.
DEMARCO MORGAN: And you are the first openly gay Afro-Latino in Congress. Can you talk about, you know, how you have compared coming out about your sexuality to coming out about depression? How so?
TORRES: Look, there is an analogy there. When you’re coming out of the closet, the process of coming out, the integrity that it demands of you, teaches you what I call an ethic of radical authenticity, of radical transparency. And when you’re out of the closet, you’re motivated to be transparent about every aspect of your life, including your struggle with depression. And so my experience of coming out has inspired me to be honest and open about my lifelong struggle with depression.
MORGAN: So you also think that there are people in the closet about, you know, being depressed and living with depression?
TORRES: We live in a society that historically has shamed people for experiencing mental illness, that has framed mental illness as a failure of character or a failure of willpower. And I’m here to send a message that mental illness is nothing of which to be ashamed, that there are millions of Americans who struggle with depression and anxiety. And I’m living proof that you can overcome those mental health barriers that keep you from becoming the best version of yourself.
PILGRIM: You’re talking about that shame, that stigma that’s associated with mental illness. You say it’s not broken yet, but it is breaking. What progress have we made? What do you think we need to do to make the full progress?
TORRES: Look, when you have a United States senator publicly acknowledge that he’s admitting himself into the hospital for depression, that’s a culturally consequential moment. That’s a breakthrough for mental health awareness. And I tell my story, because I see mental health awareness as a form of public service. And so more people are telling their stories. And no matter what position you hold in life, whether you’re rich or poor, black or white. Mental health is a universal experience. We all have either had experience with mental illness or we know someone we love who’s had those experiences.
MORGAN: And how has your battle with depression influenced your work in Washington and sort of changed the way that you represent your constituents who are dealing with depression?
TORRES: Well, especially in the world of COVID, my experience with depression has motivated me to be a champion of mental health awareness in Congress. I think I began experiencing depression when I was in high school, and my school was so chronically under resourced that there were no psychologists or psychiatrists on site. And if I had been given access to mental health care when I was in high school, then all the crises that followed could have been prevented. And so in the last federal budget, I secured millions of dollars to support the Montefiore School Health Program, which is the largest network of school based health centers, which services about 42,000 students. Our schools are like our second homes, and our schools should be hubs of mental health services.
PILGRIM: The first lines of defense for a lot of these students. You’re a congressmen. So what can legislators do to help this situation?
TORRES: Well, first and foremost, we have to recognize that health care, including mental health care, is a human right. The United States has the highest health care expenditures, but we have the worst health outcomes. And even if you have insurance, there are interminably long waiting periods for psychologists and psychiatrists. There’s a severe shortage of mental health professionals in America. So we have to fix our broken health care system. Because if you’re generation Z, especially, you’ve lived through the isolation of COVID, you’re the first generation to grow up on social media. Those are profound mental health events that will have consequences long after the pandemic is gone.
MORGAN: You’ve also said that it is much worse to let depression fester than to get treatment. What advice would you give someone who’s going through depression, doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know how to find the resources?
TORRES: Look, there’s no one size fits all. There’s no magic bullet. But my experience tells me that those who struggle with depression could benefit from medication and psychotherapy. Every morning I take an antidepressant, Wellbutrin. It enables me to function as a productive person in public service, and I feel no shame in admitting it. And I would encourage others to do the same, if that can make a difference in your life.
MORGAN: All right. Thank you. And thanks a lot for coming on to the show as well.