Bruce Springsteen’s depression revelation is heartening—but people of color need mental health heroes, too

All my life, I fought that fight / The fight that you can’t win.
All my life, I fought that fight / The fight that you can’t win.
Image: AP Photo/Ron Frehm
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After I bought Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, Born to Run, I flipped through its 528 pages until I found the word I was looking for: “Depression.”

Much of the press surrounding Springsteen’s book, released Sept. 27, has highlighted the musician’s frank treatment of his decades-long struggle with serious depression. As New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner wrote, “I will admit this information shook me. If Bruce Springsteen has to resort to Klonopin, what hope is there for anyone?” But something about Garner’s aside irked me: What’s wrong with resorting to Klonopin? It’s one of the drugs a psychiatrist recently prescribed me to treat my own anxiety and depression, which I’d neglected for years.

I’ve told very few people about my depression. I’ve been afraid to look weak or vulnerable. I was worried about being judged. It comforts me that one of my favorite musicians—an icon of American masculinity, no less—can write so candidly about the time he broke down in front of his therapist and about the days he spent crying uncontrollably.

There was NO stopping it… Every mundane daily event, any bump in the sentimental road, became a cause to let it all hang out. It would’ve been funny except it wasn’t.

It was heartening just to learn that Springsteen sees a therapist, which is a practice I also recently started and have felt deeply embarrassed about. But while it’s meaningful to see parts of myself in a man I admire, there’s one thing I can’t relate to: Springsteen is white.

I know he’s also rich and famous and many other things I’m not, but race is an important part of how I’ve approached my mental health. My parents are immigrants; my mother is from the Philippines and my father from India. My duty, like many children of Asian immigrants, was to do well in school and secure a well-paying job in finance or medicine, even if I dreaded the prospect. I didn’t know anyone who looked like me—in popular culture or otherwise—who had come out about their mental illness.

In my family, depression and anxiety weren’t thought of as disorders so much as temporary ailments like pimples—something to bear and grow out of.  It was a long time before I could take my feelings seriously, and I had little outside recourse. When I started looking into therapy in my late 20s, I worried I wouldn’t be able to find a therapist who’d be able to understand my background and childhood: 83% of psychologists are white.

Many people, regardless of race, face barriers and stigma when they’re confronted with a mental disorder. But people of color have an additional set of hurdles. Some research has shown therapists are less likely to return calls for appointments if the caller sounds black, for instance. Meanwhile Asian Americans, like me, are less likely to seek treatment than other ethnic groups. And Asian American college students are more likely to seriously consider suicide than white students. Asian American mental health, in fact, hasn’t been closely studied until recently, partly because some ethnic groups are ashamed of talking about it.

Race is also a factor in how culture generally views depression and anxiety. In an article about the memoir, a reporter from the Asbury Park Pressthe newspaper of the city immortalized by Springsteen’s 1973 studio debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ—wrote about the relationship between psychological stress and the arts. He listed a spate of artists, who, like Springsteen, are depressives: Woody Allen, Baudelaire, Beethoven, Ingmar Bergman, Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt Cobain, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Leonard Cohen, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, John Keats, Michelangelo, Brian Wilson, Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollock, Beyonce, Gustav Mahler, Goya.

Notice anything about that list? All are white, except one. It reminds me of a recent New York Times op-ed about how television shows like My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are starting to portray mental illness in an empathetic way, giving anxious and depressed viewers a chance to see their experiences validated, instead of shunned, by popular culture. The piece names nine shows—all of which feature white protagonists.

“Western psychology and ‘seeing a therapist’… is still a completely foreign concept to people of my parents’ generation who believed seeing a therapist would prevent you from getting a job,” writes comedian Kristina Wong in an essay called “I Thought Being Miserable Was Just Part of Being Chinese American.”

One way we can combat the stigma of mental illness in all races is to talk about it. It’s what Wong did for several years with her one-woman show about depression and suicide, “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” It’s what Springsteen does in his memoir—not to mention his music, such as the song “This Depression” off his 2012 album Wrecking Ball. And it’s what I’m doing now.

I’m encouraged by Springsteen’s story to tell my own, and I hope more people of color come forward and help break the stigma of depression in their own cultures. Like Springsteen says, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”