With its 140-character limit, Twitter is anything but subtle. A tweet from a recent 19-page New Yorker profile of Bruce Springsteen focused on just one thing: his admission that he's suffered depression.
It's startling that a person so fabulously successful could have been depressed. Even more surprising, depression hit after his breakthrough commercial album Born to Run in 1975.
The profile recounted a 1982 drive Springsteen made from the East Coast to California, and then back again. "He was feeling suicidal," his friend and biographer Dave Marsh is quoted as saying. The New Yorker's David Remnick, who wrote the profile, says Springsteen could not let go of "a sense that he had inherited his father's depressive self-isolation." He began seeing a psychotherapist.
Because of his status, Springsteen's revelation may reduce the persistent stigma surrounding depression. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry who recounted her manic-depression in the 1997 book An Unquiet Mind, talks about the "silent successful" — people who get well from psychiatric illness but are afraid to speak about it.
"This reluctance is very understandable, very human, but it is unfortunate because it perpetuates the misperception that mental illness cannot be treated," she has written. "What remains visible in the public eye are the newspaper accounts of violence, the homeless mentally ill, the untreated illness in friends, family and colleagues."
People can recover and lead normal lives, or even achieve stardom like Springsteen and, as I recounted upon his death in April, TV journalist Mike Wallace. Springsteen's admission speaks to a new audience and generation.
But without role models for healthy recovery, individuals may reject treatment for fear they'll be mistaken for "crazies" who dye their hair orange and allegedly hunt movie patrons. They rob themselves of the chance for recovery.
Silence also lets decisionmakers remain blinkered to the prevalence of depression and other mental illnesses. Our society is in denial, to use the psychiatric term. One result is that we place too little importance on adequate funding for mental health offices at universities. Mass murderers keep emerging from campuses where they've had at least some contact with psychiatric counselors.
We should applaud those who speak openly. Chicago Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who took a leave from Congress on June 10, recently disclosed that he is being evaluated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. for gastrointestinal issues and depression. Will he be accepted as a functioning member of Congress — as much as any congressman warrants that description nowadays — if he returns to his job?
It's less risky for Springsteen, now 62 and apparently long past his darkness, to recount it at this point. No one is going to skip a concert because The Boss sees a shrink. Still, his owning up will color how we view the art he has created. It alters his legacy. So coming out about depression took courage.
Only time will tell if his courage helps a Jesse Jackson Jr. return to a full life, or inspires a fan to get help. Each act against silence inspires hope.
Anne Michaud is interactive editor for Newsday Opinion and a member of the Newsday editorial board.
© 2012 Newsday