How Congressman Ritchie Torres Champions Mental Health

In 2013, United States Congressman Ritchie Torres, who represents New York’s 15th district in the South Bronx, became New York City’s youngest elected official at age 25 and the first openly gay person elected in the Bronx. Torres, who recently announced he will be running for re-election, has also been an outspoken advocate for mental health.

(Courtesy of Congressman Ritchie Torres)

Sharing the Tools to Deal With Mental Health Struggles

What has been your personal experience with mental health challenges?

I’ve long had a struggle with depression. I take an antidepressant every day, Wellbutrin XL. And I feel no shame in admitting it because without mental health treatmentI never would’ve made it to the United States Congress.

My first experience with depression dates back to high school. I found myself underperforming academically and lacking energy. At the time, I had no conception of mental illness in general or depression in particular. Like many people, I mistook my depression for failure of willpower, for failure of character. I had a downward spiral of self-blame.

15 years ago I dropped out of college because I found myself struggling with depression. I began abusing substances, and I lost my best friend to a fatal opioid overdose. There were moments when I thought of taking my own life because I felt as if the world around me had collapsed.

I never imagined that seven years later I would become the youngest elected official in the city of New York, and then seven years after that I would become a United States congressman. I sincerely believe that I would not be alive today, let alone be a member of the United States Congress, were it not for the power of mental health treatment.

What tools helped you work through your mental health problems?

The most important aspect of recovery is your support system. It’s the support and love of your family and friends, the support of my mother. I’ve been blessed with mentors and friends and a strong mother who believed in me more than I believe in myself. I’m a strong advocate for psychiatry, psychotherapy and medication, but there’s no one-size-fits-all medication.

How do you speak up against the mental health stigma?

A few weeks ago, I saw Elon Musk on Twitter claiming that Wellbutrin is worse than Adderall and that it’s a dangerous drug. I simply saw an occasion to share my own story that I would not be alive were it not for Wellbutrin. You have to be careful not to make those kind of sweeping generalizations about one drug because there are people for whom Wellbutrin has been a game-changer and a lifesaver.

No single drug works for everyone. Mental health treatment varies widely from person to person because the human brain is so complex, and the causes of depression can vary so widely.

It took me a long time to find the right antidepressantand the process of experimenting with a single drug or a cocktail of drugs can be deeply draining and demoralizing. I want to be careful not to romanticize it.

What advice would you give someone struggling with the process of working on their mental health?

Look to my story for inspiration. I often tell people my story is the story of the Bronx — it’s a story of struggle, but it’s also one of overcoming. And psychiatry made it possible for me to overcome despite severe depression that destabilized me early in my life. I would encourage people to seek treatment and to feel no shame in acknowledging 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 came to discover that the gym was a powerful outlet for me. As an introvert, I need time for myself, so I see to it that I have time to myself to think.

For me, the most important source of gratification apart from my loved ones is my vocation. I wake up every morning and I love what I do and I do what I love. It gives me a profound sense of meaning and purpose. That, to me, is one of the greatest, most powerful safeguards against depression. I have a need, as we all do, to be productive and purposeful.

There’s nothing I fear more than inactivity. Part of what I love about the gym is the structure that it imposes in your life. It’s something of a paradox, but there is something liberating about structure. It liberates you from the chaos into which your life could easily descend.

What was your community when you needed it most during your struggles 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 point, gave me opportunities to rebuild my life, who gave me the space that I needed to replenish myself. When people are struggling with anxiety, depression or any mental illness, it’s important to be empathetic and supportive and to do what you can to enable them to overcome. That’s certainly what my mentors and friends did for me, because I was in a radically different place 15 years ago.

As someone who advocates for mental health, how do you reconcile our modern day politics that divide us?

There are truly malevolent people in politics who should be held accountable and exposed. But we often have gone too far in denying the humanity in those in politics. I feel like the demonization is taken too far. I have the same attitude as Hyman Roth in “The Godfather Part 2,” who said, ‘This is the life we have chosen.’ I have come to accept my lot in life, but I feel the politics of personal destruction is not only corrosive to civic discourse but it’s corrosive to mental health.

Where should someone in a difficult place start with their mental health?

First, I would take the long view, and recognize that there will be more to life than the present. You have to remind yourself that this too shall pass. You have to be careful not to subscribe more significance to the present than it merits.

My story is proof that even in your moment of greatest darkness, you should never lose hope. No one who saw me in the depths of depression would’ve thought that I would amount to anything, much less an elected official. You just never know. Even if you’re struggling, realize that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

How do you personally challenge the mental health stigma?

There is a sense in which my experience as a gay man prepared me to tell my story of mental illness in my capacity as elected official. The integrity that that process demands from you teaches you what I have described as an ethic of radical authenticity that carries over into every aspect of your life including your own struggles with mental illness.

I have been as open about my struggles with depression as I am about my sexuality. I’m proud of the character that has been informed by my lived experience. For me authenticity is not only good morals, it’s good politics. I feel that we’re living in a time where people gravitate toward authenticity in elected officials. It certainly resonated powerfully in my district.

What’s next for your career and how will you continue to be an ambassador for mental health?

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 it.

To me the role of a 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 view that as not only an expression of who I am but also as an expression of what I do for a living, which is educating and inspiring people. That’s what we do as elected officials.

Discovering what works for you requires experimentation, it requires trial and error. It took me a long time to find a structure that brings out the best in me and my life. But people should work at it because it’s worthwhile.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the 1-800-273-TALK(8255). The Trevor Project also provides support for LGBTQ young people, and you can chat with a counselor by texting “START” to 678-678 or calling 1-866-488-7386

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