Even before he was elected to Congress in 2020, Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from the Bronx, spoke openly about his history with depression.
During his campaign, he talked about his past suicidal ideation, being hospitalized for the condition, and using medication to manage his mental health. Three years later, Torres, 34, has become one of the members who talks most freely about his personal experiences with mental illness. When Senator John Fetterman was admitted to the hospital to receive treatment for depression last month, Torres was among the first to express his admiration and support.
“Elected officials should see telling their own stories about mental health as a form of public service,” he says.
Torres spoke to TIME by phone on March 3 about his ongoing mental health challenges, what he hears from other lawmakers about their struggles, and the ways depression has helped him be a better congressman.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TIME: I’d love it if you could walk me through your own experience of mental health struggles.
Torres: I’ve had a longstanding struggle with depression. About 15 years ago, I dropped out of college, because I found myself struggling with depression. There were moments when I even thought of taking my own life, because I felt as if the world around me had collapsed, and I felt a profound sense of failure.
About a decade ago, I was hospitalized after experiencing suicidal ideation. As a result of the rehab, I found an antidepressant that I’ve been taking ever since. Every morning, I take an antidepressant that enables me to function as both a professional and a person.
I would not be alive—let alone a member of Congress—were it not for psychiatry, were it not for psychotherapy and mental health care.
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Is taking that antidepressant what you credit with improving your mental health? Or are there other tools as well?
The combination of both psychotherapy and medication management, but it’s mostly the medication for me. But I want to be clear: there are people who have trouble accessing mental health care. And even if you do, the process of experimenting with psychiatric medications can be draining and debilitating, because there’s no one size fits all.
Would you say that you’re still experiencing depression?
I think of depression not as a problem to be solved, but as a condition to be managed. It’s much more manageable today than it was 15 years ago when I dropped out of college, or back in 2010 when I had to be hospitalized. Someone who’s struggling with depression cannot be faulted, just like a diabetic who cannot generate insulin cannot be faulted.
Do you feel like depression still is affecting your life today apart from the routine of taking medicine?
I go through depressive episodes. It might be tempting to think that the power and prestige of public office insulates you from the feelings of personal inadequacy that depression produces. Quite the opposite: one’s struggle with depression can be compounded by the mental strains and stresses of public life.
How do you handle it when those episodes happen?
Politics is more of a struggle for me than it is for most people in politics, because I’m an introvert who has a history of struggling with depression. I’m exactly the opposite of the kind of person one would expect to be in politics. I have figured out how to excel in politics, not only despite my depression, but in some ways because of it. We’re living in a time where you have a new generation of elected officials who are running based on their lived experience, and my struggles with depression are part of my lived experience. I often analogize coming out about my depression to coming out about my sexuality. As a public figure, I feel compelled to be open and honest about my struggles with depression in order to break the shame and silence and stigma that often surrounds the subject of mental health. I see it as a teachable moment.
I remember when I first ran for public office, at age 24. I had far less self confidence. I was honest about my sexuality, but I withheld information about my struggles with depression. And there was an attempt by one of my opponents to make it an issue on the campaign trail, to weaponize my depression against me to suggest that I was mentally unqualified to be a public official. After my first city council campaign, I promised myself that never again would I allow my mental health to be weaponized, that I would be honest and open about my struggles with depression, and do it on my own terms, and own it.
Were you worried about people judging you when you brought it up?
No, because acknowledging one’s struggles with depression can be powerfully humanizing. There are millions of Americans who have the same struggle. We all either have struggled with depression, or we know someone who has had those struggles. I saw an opportunity to change our culture.
Do you talk about mental health with other members of Congress in a personal way?
I find that when I share my own story of depression, my colleagues have made a point of reaching out to me and expressing their appreciation and then telling their own story. There are people with whom I have nothing else in common, but the common thread between us is the experience of depression, or the struggle with mental illness. Depression can affect all of us, rich and poor, Black and white, Democrat and Republican.
How do you feel the culture is towards mental health issues in Congress? Do you think the stigma has lessened in recent years? Do you think that still exists?
I do feel that the stigma has diminished and that there’s more awareness around mental health, partly because of COVID, and partly because of social media. Generation Z, which is far more conscious of mental health, is experiencing some of the highest rates of anxiety and depression. But having said that, the number of elected officials who have come out about their struggles with mental illness remains vanishingly few, only a handful. So we have made progress, but it’s far from ‘mission accomplished.’
Senator John Fetterman recently checked into the hospital to receive treatment for depression. If your depression became acute again, how would you handle that, both in terms of seeking treatment and handling it with the press and colleagues?
I applaud Senator Fetterman for what he did. If I found myself experiencing the same struggles with depression that I did 13 years ago and I needed to check myself into a hospital, I would be honest about it. And I would take the time to rebuild my health. We have to remember that even though we’re members of Congress, in the end, we’re people. We have needs. And we have to care for our mental health needs in order to be the effective public servants that our constituents deserve.
There are people who say having a mental illness can make you less qualified for a job. How do you think about those questions about fitness for the job?
We all have struggles in our lives. But I am confident in my ability to serve my constituents and to perform the duties that my office requires. My thinking on issues of mental health is powerfully informed by my own experience with depression, so I see myself as even more qualified because of the wisdom of lived experience. And the ability to enable your constituents to see themselves in you, to see you as a representative of their struggles and lived experiences—that’s the most important qualification.
What do you wish was different about Congress’s approach to mental health among its members?
I wish Congress would do more legislatively. We live in a country where mental health care should be a necessity but it’s treated as a luxury. Most people face deeply rooted barriers to accessing mental health care, especially when it’s needed urgently. Our healthcare system is fundamentally broken and Congress is no closer to fixing it.
What do you know about the resources available in the Capitol to members who are experiencing mental health issues?
We have an in-house doctor. When I run out of my antidepressant, I will ask for a prescription. If I ever felt I needed to inquire about mental health services, I would go to the in-house doctor at the Capitol.
Do you think as members like you and Fetterman come forward and share more of their personal experiences, other members will follow?
Elected officials should see telling their own stories about mental health as a form of public service.
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