Are we more vulnerable to depression in our 60s, like Bruce Springsteen?
Published 08/09/2016 | 07:00
Bruce Springsteen is the bard of the everyman, his songs populated with dreamers, loners and blue-collar dudes trying to make their way through a world determined to beat them down. But we have just discovered that Springsteen has himself felt quite beaten down by life, with the worst of the depression striking in his early 60s - by which point he ought to have been basking in a lifetime of fame, wealth and acclaim.
"I was crushed between 60 and 62, good for a year and out again from 63 to 64," the singer told 'Vanity Fair' this week, in an interview promoting his forthcoming autobiography, 'Born To Run'. "Not a good record."
You don't have to be a psychologist to appreciate that Springsteen has had his demons. Though this is the first time he has openly talked about depression, he has never held back in his lyrics. 'The River', which he performed so full-throatedly in Dublin this summer, was about a young man mourning a bright future that he would never experience; the narrator of 'Born To Run' sings about escaping the soul-destroying claustrophobia of a life of low expectations.
Part of the darkness Springsteen carried around flowed from a difficult relationship with his father, he reveals in the new book. Doug Springsteen was a hard-living working-class guy who never got to live the life he imagined for himself and took to venting his rage on his son.
Moreover, Doug came from a family rife with mental illness - Springsteen Jr remembers aunts who pulled their hair, screamed for no reason or were terrified of the outdoors (only later did he understand not everyone's upbringing was like this).
Thus, the shadow of depression has always followed the singer. When it finally struck, with terrible vengeance, across the past decade, one gets the sense that he wasn't surprised. He had sensed it chugging down the track.
"You don't know the illness's parameters," he told the title, recalling the plunge into an ever deeper funk. "Can I get sick enough to where I become a lot more like my father than I thought I might?"
Springsteen's image is of a buttoned-down man of the people: not the sort to readily open up about their innermost fears and frustrations. Indeed, his wife, Patti Scialfa, was alarmed at the decision to forthrightly discuss depression.
"If I'm being honest, I'm not completely comfortable with that part of the book, but that's okay," she told 'Vanity Fair'. "That's Bruce. He approached the book the way he would approach writing a song, and a lot of times, you solve something that you're trying to figure out through the process of writing - you bring something home to yourself.
"So in that regard, I think it's great for him to write about depression. A lot of his work comes from him trying to overcome that part of himself."
Springsteen has never been an everyday rock star, and in speaking honestly about his feelings he breaks new ground once again. Though musicians are statistically at higher risk of depression than the average person, male performers, in particular, rarely open upon about what's going on inside their heads.
There are exceptions. Robbie Williams has been frank about depression and his suspicion that drug use may have altered the chemical balance of his brain.
"When you take ecstasy, your brain releases an awful amount of serotonin, and it makes you go 'great'," he said in a strikingly plainspoken interview with BBC Radio One.
"The serotonin in your head's going 'wey hey hey, loads of it!', and then you use it all up and your brain's got nothing to bathe in...People go 'what have you got to be depressed about?' And they're right, I haven't."
Ray Davies of The Kinks has also broken the silence around mental health in music by discussing his bipolar disorder. He acknowledged that the public has a hard time thinking of a swaggering rock star as a person who may also be in deep emotional distress.
"I'd just come off stage and sunk a bottle of downers because I wanted to kill myself," he told 'Q Magazine' in 2005. "Then I changed my mind. I was dressed as a dandy, it might have looked like a clown to everyone else. But even clowns can have bad days."
But if there is today a greater openness about mental illness in wider society, for rock stars the default is to deny and deflect. They'll lay it all out in their songs. Getting them to explicitly discuss their fears and hopes is another matter.
Consider the shock we experienced learning of Prince's death - who would have known he had suffered ill-health and grown increasingly dependent on prescription medication? These are not things a middle-aged man, rock god or not, is going to share with the world.
What makes Springsteen's case different, it is arguable, is that the depression struck at an interesting time in his life. Past the mid-life crisis and not yet dealing with the struggles of the elderly, he was in remarkable physical fettle and with a loving wife and family and a pretty solid bank balance to act as a pension.
Yet he nonetheless will have been aware that, in a culture that cherishes youthfulness, he was out of place.
Ours, after all, is a society where everything is deemed permissible except getting old. Social media has exacerbated the worship of youth - a trend that could plausibly leave even an international rock god such as Springsteen feeling like an old timer in danger of outliving their usefulness.
"We are always vulnerable to mental health difficulties when we are going through transition involving relationships ending, loss, bereavement, retirement," says psychologist Mark Smyth. "When major transitions occur we are that little bit more vulnerable. Your mid to late 60s might be one of those times when you are thinking about issues such as retirement. Some of your friends might pass away. Life changes: you may have less resources around, less social supports. You are perhaps going to more vulnerable."
There is firm evidence that the early 60s are a challenging period - a "late-life crisis" that deserves to be treated with the same seriousness as the classic mid-life crisis. A 2013 survey by Britain's University of Greenwich concluded one in three in their early 60s and beyond, are hit by depression, often prompted by fear of mental and physical decline and by loss and bereavement.
Such research is supported by a new findings from Trinity College Dublin's TiLDA survey on the impact of growing older.
"Those with high levels of physical activity and participation in social activities are less anxious and suffer less loneliness," it said. "However, negative attitudes to ageing can have a detrimental effect on mental health."
A further factor may be that many now reaching their 60s are of a generation for whom mental health was taboo. The demons have been buried deep and now, as life gets a little bleaker and lonelier, they are clawing their way free.
"I hear from people quite a lot that they are looking back over their lives to when they were in late adolescence and weren't able to talk about their feelings because there was so much stigma," says Smyth.
"They may have internalised these difficulties and held onto them."