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Could Springsteen Break Down Mental Health Stigma for Our Parents’ Generation?

How The Boss' autobiography tackles depression in a way that bridged a gap between my father and me.

by Tom Connick
08 February 2017, 2:25pm

(Lead image by Shayne Kaye via Flickr)

"How are you doing these days?"

It's Christmas and I'm in the kitchen with my dad as he struggles his way through his first meat-free roast dinner. It's a fairly innocuous question; the kind that's often sandwiched between the likes of "found a girlfriend yet?" and "eating properly?" in our monthly Groundhog Day-style catch up sessions ("obviously not" and "does pizza count yet?", for the record). But this time, he digs a little deeper: "Y'know… with your depression?"

Such well meaning ham-fistery, like most of my dad's actions, owes an inordinate amount to Bruce Springsteen. The "Born In the USA" megastar has been a constant presence in our house: At just three months old, Dad tried to take me to my first Springsteen show, semi-seriously attempting (and failing) to convince my mum that it would be integral to my development into a red-blooded "real man". Since then, The Boss has played the role of surrogate stepfather with aplomb; acting as the shining light of hope, flamboyance and the American dream that was ever-present through my parent's divorce and the development of my teens. From the post-9/11 anger of The Rising soundtracking my angsty puberty, to the golden sax of "Thunder Road" lending every drab British seaside holiday a sun-kissed haze, The Boss offered both escapism and grounding whenever either was needed. But the release of Springsteen's autobiography Born to Run dragged far darker topics to the fore.

The dialogue surrounding the book focussed on two key topics – Springsteen's hatred of the satsuma-skinned fascist creeping up on the White House, and the "toxic confusion" of depression that has plagued him for nearly half his life. Writing about his battle with the black dog in Born To Run, he painted it as "like a freight train bearing down, loaded with nitroglycerin and running quickly out of track". Springsteen's candid, open-hearted depiction of mental struggle shines a new light on the All-American Hero archetype for which he's so often pinned as the poster boy. What's more, his honesty bridges a generational gap in understanding mental health like never before.

"One of the points I'm making in the book is that, whoever you've been and wherever you've been, it never leaves you," Springsteen explained in an October 2016 interview with Vanity Fair. That interview had the most profound impact on my dad, he later shares, as we sit down to chat again. "It wasn't so much that I didn't understand it before," he tells me, "I just thought … the classic old man's reaction: 'What are you depressed about?' You always have to be depressed 'about' something." This is an attitude he identifies as widespread among his generation, and one that, despite my best attempts to explain, he only shook himself free of when Springsteen offered up an alternative.

"When the autobiography came out, I was chatting at work with a mate," he continues. "We were talking about the depression bit, and he said exactly what I said to you; 'What has Bruce got to be depressed about?' He's a billionaire, he's got a beautiful wife, travels the world first class being a rockstar – what's he got to be depressed about?" A BBC interview released around the time of Born To Run's publication follows a similar thread – the host fumbles for a "trigger" to explain Bruce's bouts of darkness. "I didn't understand depression as an illness," my dad concedes, finally coming around to its permanence.

Of course, I'd long been aware of that perpetual state. Plagued by spiralling moods and suicidal thoughts since my early teens, as Bruce writes in Born To Run, I was "out where the buses don't run and couldn't center myself around the truth", with anxious paranoia convincing me I was little more than a burden to everyone around me. More than a decade of mental anguish came to a head a few years ago, when I finally sought NHS help and received that all important diagnosis, coupled with a prescription that kept the darkest aspects of my illness at arms' length. It was like a weight had been lifted; finally there was a name I could pin to these feelings, and thus a box I could lock them away in when they began to creep up.

My dad admits that he struggled to accept my diagnosis. He constantly searched for a reason, blaming himself at every turn. "People like me look at people like you, and we're jealous," he says, shrugging. "Maybe that's why we think, 'what's he got to be depressed about? He's 24, he lives in London, he goes to gigs for free every night, and he's pissed all the time.' There's an element of 'what right has he got to be depressed?' I didn't understand it." To be having a conversation so frank and two-sided today would've been a pipe-dream just a year ago.

As fate would have it, when I meet up with my dad again, it's Time To Talk Day, a mental health awareness initiative that, despite Theresa May's attempts to replace a diminished NHS with a nice cup of tea and some non-committal chat about stigma, hasn't even punctured the bubble the older generation – people like Dad and his peers – float in. "I don't think you could go to someone and say: 'you should talk about your feelings more', because they'd just tell you to fuck off and punch you in the nose," he says with a laugh; but that hangover of the stiff upper lip attitude of our elders can create more problems than a bruised nose. With unexpected mental health-related deaths up a gut-churning 50 percent in the last three years, the importance of opening up across all age ranges has never been more apparent.

The Time To Change campaign, which launched Time To Talk Day back in 2014, seeks to end "mental health discrimination" through primarily targeting younger generations. "By changing the attitudes of these generations, we will be better placed to achieve our long-term goal, of the stigma of mental illness being removed and discrimination no longer tolerated," confirms a government report from 2014. It goes without saying that these are brilliant, integral steps towards ensuring future generations feel comfortable opening up about their mental health – but is that really enough? Should we really be writing off those who are older, and already educated, as lost causes, pinning them as 'set in their ways' and beyond reproach?

From teenage role models like Gerard Way normalising talk of inner turmoil, to more modern figures such as Olly Alexander positioning themselves as figureheads for furthering the debate on more mainstream platforms, we're a generation with our heads in the black cloud, trying to shrink it everyday. Campaigns and charities like CALM and Mind are being given a brighter spotlight, and while funding is cruelly slashed around us, the power of our discourse is increasing all the time. 

CALM's recent 'Torch Songs' initiative, for instance, explicitly looks to combat mental health struggles using music's healing properties, putting a face to the fight against mental distress. A cursory glance at the line up, though, emphasises the campaign's focus on younger generations. While Twin Atlantic's take on Springsteen's "The Rising" might raise an eyebrow, you may not be able to get your uncle bopping to Years & Years, or your nan getting gassed about Lower Than Atlantis' Robbie Williams cover. So really, it's no wonder a lot of us can talk to our friends about medication without batting an eyelid; a fact that startles my dad.

But while his peer group don't shy away from things quite like his parents and grandparents once did – "we don't walk around crying all the time, but all of my friends are quite happy to talk about their feelings" – he accepts that the younger generation's mindset is "very weird… very different" to the majority of his generation, and certainly those before him. "I don't feel like my dad. I feel like a dickhead!" he says, shrugging off his softer side; his inability to live up to the stoic, miner's mentality of his parents and grandparents is clearly still a sticking point.

In that way, figures like Springsteen prove invaluable. The archetypal blue-collar role model, he's a "man's man" on paper. He's the swaggering John Wayne of the stage, all denim and dust, buzzing with bravado and that guttural yell even as he approaches his seventies. For all his open-hearted songwriting, he's been unwillingly positioned as a totem of the "traditionally masculine" male for decades. "It was like all my notorious energy, something that had been mine to command for most of my life, had been cruelly stolen away. I was a walking husk," Bruce writes of his battle with depression in his autobiography. "I couldn't even get a hard on." In one almost uncomfortably honest sentence, he smashes apart the stereotype that's been built around him over his decades-long career.

You can't really understate the part played by normalising a healthy attitude to emotional expression among his older fanbase, especially men of a certain age who may have felt dissuaded from sharing their feelings in the past. "I would advise everyone to run to their nearest psychologist," Springsteen joked, by way of tongue-in-cheek advice on a Radio 2 interview last year. "Everybody could use a little help!" While he might have been fighting back the giggles as he said it, the core message was vital and clearly heartfelt. "I've been at it for 30 years," he added. "I've found it to be useful."

Bruce Springsteen bridges that generational gap – with an ageless appeal, he's the father figure to our fathers; yer da's sense of direction. "There's a lot of bands that project cool, or project mystery, or project anger; there's not a lot of bands who are really good at projecting joy," The Boss said in the Radio 2 interview. "It's one of the gifts that our band has had from when we very first started… I believe that you can change someone's life in a single evening." If we're to keep changing – and even saving – lives, we need more people like Bruce Springsteen to put an older famous face to the mental health debate.

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