By Mark Vander Vennen
January 30, 2019, marked the ninth annual Bell Let’s Talk day. Nine years ago, when Bell started its Let’s Talk campaign, public discourse about mental illness was still very muted. A few celebrities who deal with mental health issues like depression were just beginning to speak publicly about their experiences—people like Clara Hughes, Sheilagh Rogers, Brendan Kennedy, Michael Landsberg and others.
Since then, in part due to Bell’s Let’s Talk, more and more people have publicly shared their journeys with mental illness. Conversations about mental illness have become more acceptable in public discourse. We have a long ways to go. But some of the stigma and shame associated with mental illness is slowly beginning to subside.
There are criticisms of Bell’s Let’s Talk campaigns. The people featured in their campaigns all seem to be white people of privilege, not, for example, homeless people with no fixed address. People tend to talk about depression and anxiety, not schizophrenia. Some Bell employees have stated that the pressure of their work environment seriously undermines their own mental health. Meanwhile, Bell’s corporate brand has benefitted.
Despite these criticisms—surely legitimate in and of themselves—I am grateful for Bell’s Let’s Talk. No single campaign will be sufficient or comprehensive enough. No effort will be beyond reproach. All of us, from all different sectors, need to do much more; each of us must play a role in bringing down the walls of stigma.
Why am I grateful? Regardless of whether we are a “celebrity” or not, it takes enormous courage to tell the story of our journey with mental illness—and we need courageous examples. There is great vulnerability in it—also for public figures.
I have just encountered a new example of a celebrity telling their story about mental illness, and it’s someone you know doubt have heard of: Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen is one of the most successful rock musicians ever. He tells his story in a stunningly written, articulate, vulnerable, voluminous autobiography called Born to Run.
There are many, many things that stand out about his life story. For me, none stand out more than his description of living with a dad who struggled with alcohol addiction and mental illness (with the son trying to understand his dad and get close), the powerful impact of his grandmother in his early life (whose boundaries with the young Springsteen left him exhilarated, confused and deeply troubled), and then his own ongoing existential encounters with depression as an adult.
About his dad, he writes, “Those whose love we wanted but could not get, we emulate. It is dangerous but it makes us feel closer, gives us an illusion of the intimacy we never had. It stakes our claim upon that which was rightfully ours but denied” (p. 414). After years of working hard to try to work things through with his dad, punctuated by serious episodes of psychosis on his dad’s part, they arrive eventually at a hard-won peace.
Springsteen writes, “One night I had a dream. I’m onstage in full flight, the night is burning and my dad, long dead, sits quietly in an aisle seat in the audience. Then…I’m kneeling next to him in the aisle, and for a moment, we both watch the man on fire onstage. I touch his forearm and say to my dad, who for so many years sat paralyzed by depression, ‘Look, Dad, look…that guy onstage…that’s you…that’s how I see you’” (p. 414). As a reader, you cheer for this meaningful sign of reconciliation and peace.
Springsteen credits excellent psychotherapy, combined with anti-depressant medication, as critical for creating understanding and balance in his life, and for helping to make possible a satisfying, life-giving family life with his wife Patti and their three children. But it has been far from easy. Through it all—through his life, from the very beginning—it is clear that everything he engages has the purpose of seeking understanding—understanding his story, his life, the family he comes from, the community he grew up in, the meaning of his life—and finding redemption.
He writes eloquently about the Catholic environment that he grew up in and went to school in. He concludes the book with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer—the very same conclusion that he offers in a recent powerful one-person Broadway stage show he presented about his life, based on his autobiography, called Springsteen on Broadway (available to watch on Netflix).
Though he started out with no means, Springsteen is a now a wealthy man. He is a celebrity. But clearly, success and wealth are no antidote to mental illness—none whatsoever. Mental illness is one of the great levelers. It teaches us that we are all human. And that’s why, in my view, Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign plays a vital role in the larger landscape of mental health.
Through his book and Broadway show, Springsteen has done us a great service in this quest to understand what it is to be human. Like others who participate in Bell’s Let’s Talk, he makes himself extraordinarily vulnerable, something he did not have to do. Springsteen’s story and some of the language he employs can be a bit crude. But it is very real. And some passages rival some of the best American prose ever produced, such as soaring poetic passages in response to the birth of his first child, and an extraordinary description of the death of his close friend and compatriot, saxophone player Clarence Clemons. Whether you know Springsteen’s music or not, I commend his story to you. That’s because, through it all, he tells his story as an invitation to us to tell ours:
I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it well to my friends, my family and to you. I don’t know if I’ve done that, and the devil is always just a day away, but I know this was my young promise to myself, to you. This, I pursued as my service. This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.” (p. 505)
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network