In a wide-ranging interview with Variety, the 49-year-old revealed he battled with severe clinical depression during the six years he starred as Steve in the Nickelodeon children's show, alluding that the struggles contributed to his abrupt exit from "Blue's Clues" in 2002.
"I didn't know it yet, but I was the happiest depressed person in North America. I was struggling with severe clinical depression the whole time I was on that show," Burns began. "It was my job to be utterly and completely full of joy and wonder at all times, and that became impossible. I was always able to dig and find something that felt authentic to me that was good enough to be on the show, but after years and years of going to the well without replenishing it, there was a cost."
"My strategy had been: 'Hey, you got a great thing going, so just fight it!' Turns out, you don't fight depression; you collect it," he added.
One of the most popular and influential preschool television series of all time, Steve and Blue were introduced to the world in 1996. Then, in 2002, Burns abruptly announced that he would be leaving the show, handing the reins of the series (as well as his house, all of its anthropomorphic contents and even his dog, Blue) to his brother Joe, played by Donovan Patton.
At the time, Burns said his exit was because Steve was heading off to college. However, he explained to Variety that other reasons were behind his departure, including losing his hair and the fact that he "wasn't going to be boyish anymore." And also, as previously mentioned, his mental health.
"After I left 'Blue's Clues,' there was a long period of healing," he recalled. "It wasn't until the death of my father that I really started to take things seriously, and my life became so much more manageable."
Looking back, Burns said he wished he sought help for his depression during his time on the series, but he admitted that he wouldn't have changed his decision to leave.
"But I would have been able to throw my arms around the role, and relax into it a little more," he told Variety. "Because now, when I look back, all I see is what an impossible gift that was."
In the years following his exit, many rumors swirled about Burns, most notably that he had died. Despite Burns popping up for some public appearances, the death hoax never fully disappeared.
"I was under the working assumption that most of y'all thought I was dead," Burns said. "That rumor was so persistent and so indelible that I assumed it was a cultural preference. I eventually just took the hint. I kept my head down and left public life."
However, last year, Burns appeared in a heartwarming video posted to Nick Jr's Twitter announcement to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original "Blue's Clues" (September 8, 1996). He shared a message not for the show's current viewers, but for his "friends," who helped him solve the clues and figure out what Blue wanted 25 years ago.
The video hit home for millions of nostalgic fans, turning many into a puddle of tears.
"You remember how when we were younger, we used to run around and hang out with Blue … and then I left and we didn't see each other for a really long time? Can we just talk about that? Because I realize that was kind of abrupt," Burns said in the September 2021 clip, which has 1.9 million likes. "I just wanted to say, I never forgot you. Ever."
Reflecting on how people's emotional reaction to the clip, Burns told Variety, "Everyone wants to feel seen and heard. I think it punched through because it was about respectful, active listening -- a more direct conversation than you’re used to seeing on your screen."
"It's very on brand for me to not have the answers. Steve was the guy who needed you. He doesn’t appear like a role model. He had difficulty differentiating between shapes and colors," he continued with a laugh, before adding, "But Steve became my role model. Because he was not afraid to ask for help."
Burns has been involved in the "Blue's Clues" revival series, "Blue's Clues & You!," which premiered in 2019, even guest staring in the reboot. He also shares the screen with host Josh Dela Cruz (aka Steve and Joe's cousin) and Patton (aka Joe) in the Parmount+ film, "Blue's Big City Adventure," which is available to stream now on Paramount+.