In 2013, U.S. Congressman Richie Torres, representing New York’s 15th borough in the South Bronx, became New York City’s youngest elected official at the age of 25 and the first openly gay person to be elected in the Bronx. Torres, who recently announced he will run for president, has also been an outspoken advocate for mental health.
(Courtesy of Congressman Richie Torres)
Sharing tools for dealing with mental health struggles
What is your personal experience with mental health challenges?
I have long struggled with depression. I take an antidepressant every day, Wellbutrin XL. And I’m not ashamed to admit it because without mental health treatment, I wouldn’t have made it to the United States Congress.
My first experience with depression goes back to high school. I found myself doing poorly academically and lacking energy. At the time, I had no conception of mental illness in general or depression in particular. Like many people, I thought my depression was a failure of willpower and a failure of character. I had a spiral of self-blame.
15 years ago I dropped out of college because I found myself struggling with depression. I started taking drugs, and lost my best friend to a deadly opiate overdose. There were moments when I thought about suicide because I felt as if the world around me had collapsed.
I never imagined that after seven years I would be the youngest elected official in New York City, and after seven years I would become a congressman in the United States. I honestly believe I wouldn’t be alive today, let alone a United States Congressman, if it weren’t for the power of mental health therapy.
What tools have helped you overcome mental health issues?
The most important aspect of recovery is your support system. It is the support and love of your family and friends, the support of my mother. I have been fortunate to have mentors, friends, and a strong mother who believes in me more than I believe in myself. I am a strong advocate of psychiatry, psychotherapy, and medication, but there is no one-size-fits-all medication.
How do you speak up against mental health stigma?
A few weeks ago, I saw Elon Musk on Twitter claiming that Wellbutrin is worse than Adderall and that it is a dangerous drug. I simply saw an occasion to share my story that I wouldn’t be alive without Wellbutrin. You have to be careful not to make this kind of blanket generalizations about a single drug because there are people out there that Wellbutrin has been a game-changer and a life saver.
There is no one medicine that works for everyone. Mental health treatment varies greatly from person to person because the human brain is very complex, and the causes of depression can vary widely.
It took a long time to find the right antidepressant, and the process of trying a single drug or combination of drugs can be very stressful and demoralizing. I want to be careful not to romanticize it.
What advice would you give someone who is having a hard time working on their mental health?
See my story for inspiration. I often tell people that my story is the story of the Bronx – it is a story of struggle, but it is also a story of overcoming. Psychiatry has allowed me to overcome the severe depression that destabilized me early in my life. I would encourage people to seek treatment and not feel ashamed to admit their struggles with depression or anxiety.
What other routines help you maintain your mental health?
I feel like we all need an outlet, and I’ve found that the gym has been a powerful outlet for me. As an introvert, I need time for myself, so I see that I have time to think about it.
For me, the most important source of gratification away from my loved ones is my calling. I wake up every morning and love what I do and do what I love. It gives me a deep sense of meaning and purpose. This, to me, is one of the greatest and most powerful preventions of depression. I need, as we all do, to be productive and purposeful.
There is nothing I fear more than inactivity. Part of what I love about the gym is the structure it imposes in your life. It’s kind of a contradiction, but there is something liberating about the structure. It frees you from the chaos that your life can easily descend into.
What was your community like when you needed it most while struggling with depression?
First, I have a mother who is unconditionally committed to my well-being and success. I had mentors who, when I was at my lowest, gave me opportunities to rebuild my life, and who gave me the space I needed to renew myself. When people suffer from anxiety, depression, or any mental illness, it is important to be empathetic and supportive and do what you can to enable them to overcome it. This is definitely what my guides and friends did for me, because 15 years ago I was in a completely different place.
As someone who advocates for mental health, how do you reconcile our contemporary policies that divide us?
There are really spiteful people in politics who need to be held accountable and exposed. But we have often gone too far in denying humanity in politics. I feel like depicting demonization is a long way off. I have the same attitude as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part 2, who said, “This is the life we chose.” I have come to accept my destiny in life, but I feel that the politics of personal destruction not only erode civic discourse, they erode mental health.
Where should someone in a difficult place begin with their mental health?
First, I would like to take the long view, and realize that there will be more to life than the present. You have to remind yourself that this too will pass. You have to be careful not to subscribe to the importance of the present more than you deserve it.
My story is proof that even in moments of deep darkness, you should never lose hope. No one who saw me in the depths of depression thought I’d come up with anything, let alone an elected official. You just never know. Even if you are struggling, realize that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.
How do you personally challenge mental health stigma?
There is a sense that my experience as a gay man has prepared me to tell my story of mental illness as an elected official. The integrity this process requires of you teaches you what I describe as the ethic of radical authenticity that carries over into every aspect of your life including your struggles with mental illness.
I have been as open about my struggle with depression as I have been about my sexuality. I am proud of the character who was inspired by my live experience. For me, authenticity isn’t just good manners, it’s good politics. I feel we live in a time when people gravitate towards authenticity in elected officials. It definitely had a strong resonance in my area.
What’s next in your career and how will you continue to be a mental health ambassador?
I am running for re-election because representing the South Bronx in Congress is the greatest satisfaction of my life and I would like to continue to do so.
For me the role of the public official is to educate, explain, and inspire, and I will continue to tell my story in hopes of inspiring others to see their own struggles with mental health in a different light. I see it not only as an expression of who I am, but as an expression of what I do for a living, which is to educate and inspire people. This is what we do as elected officials.
Finding what works for you takes experimentation, and it takes trial and error. It took me a long time to find a structure that brings out the best in my life and in my life. But people have to work on it because it’s worth it.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Trevor Project also provides support for LGBTQ youth, and you can chat with a counselor by texting “START” to 678-678 or calling 1-866-488-7386