After finding support in a group for men with depression, Al Levin brings the truths of male depression to a wider online audience.
By Denise Mann, MS
Al Levin, MEd, spent most of his career educating others. When depression waylaid him for the first time at age 42, he became the student and sought to learn all he could about depression and how it affects men.
Now the 50-year-old Minnesotan has expanded his teaching role through his popular blog and podcast, both called The Depression Files. The podcast, especially, aims to reach other men.
While awareness campaigns and disclosure by high-profile athletes and entertainers are helping to lighten the secrecy and shame surrounding male depression, Levin knows more needs to be done.
“We can work at chipping away stigma by sharing our stories,” he says. “I want to educate those who know little about depression and support those who are going through depression.”
Levin also believes teachers and school administrators need extra support around mental health and is working on connecting with that audience as well.
NEVER SAW IT COMING
Like many men, Levin was caught off guard by mental health issues. He began experiencing symptoms just as his career reached a pinnacle. Promoted to principal of a public school in St. Paul, he felt overwhelmed by problems out of his control: budget deficits, staff cuts, overcrowded classrooms.
“I would drive down the highway at a snail’s pace … dreading the arrival to the school where I knew that I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” he recalls. “I started counting down the days that were left in the school year when we were only in October.”
With a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and newborn twins, Levin’s home life was also hectic. He felt increasingly anxious, and his diet and sleep began to suffer.
“My stomach had a continual knot in it and I could hardly eat anything at all,” he says. “I would roll around in bed, my mind racing, unable to fall asleep until near morning.”
Although some men suffer in silence, afraid of appearing weak or convinced they can beat this on their own, Levin reached out to his brother, who is a family doctor. His brother immediately suggested he seek medical attention. Levin’s longtime doctor recognized right away that something was off and prescribed medication to treat depression.
Levin got through his first bout of depression, but three years later his symptoms came back with a vengeance.
“It was Thanksgiving and I was sitting at an island counter in a friend’s kitchen and watching everyone engage and I couldn’t communicate,” Levin says. “It was surreal.”
His wife noticed how his behavior that day and the two agreed he should take some time off work. After 10 days at home, though, the unstructured time only made things worse.
“I found myself following my wife around,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to do. I would lie down in the bedroom behind closed doors and try for three hours to nap, but I couldn’t sleep at all.”
Levin would try to hold it together by day, only to have bouts of uncontrollable sobbing at night. He felt guilt and shame for not being at work, but being back on the job was no solution. Winter break brought no relief, either. By January, he was having suicidal thoughts.
Once again, he reached out to family.
“I said to my wife and sister, ‘I need more help. Please go with me to the doctor,’” he recalls.
Thanks to their advocacy, he took a leave from work and entered a partial hospitalization program. Having that support was crucial in getting Levin the kind of help he needed—help that would have been difficult to arrange for himself in the midst of a major depressive episode.
After completing treatment, Levin joined a support group for men with depression and felt empowered hearing other men’s stories. He still attends regularly, but wanted to continue the conversation with more men.
He started his blog, sharing his own stories as well as his views on depression-related topics. He then expanded to podcasts, interviewing men in his basement or via Skype about how depression affected them and what strategies help them cope with their symptoms.
“Men don’t normally talk about their feelings. Men have a perceived notion that they must buck up, be tough [and] work through things on their own. Many men go on for many years without discussing it. Masking it and trying to work through it,” he says.
“By sharing our stories, not only do we educate and support others, but we help to engage more people in the conversations around mental health and therefore help to minimize the stigma,” he continues.
“By eliminating the stigma, people will be able to speak openly about their mental illness and more easily, and more willingly, receive the support they need in order to work toward recovery.”
Levin also spreads the message as a speaker with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and gives presentations on his own.
“I share my story, as well as symptoms of depression, the importance of self-care, taking care of others and the importance about talking about mental illnesses, such as depression,” he says.
A TEACHER’S TEACHER
Through his experience with depression, Levin became interested in the mental health of teachers and school administrators.
“There’s a great need for a better system of supports around mental health for educators in the K-12 public education system,” he says, noting that many students deal with difficult lives outside of school. “You can’t help others until you help yourself, and I think we can do a much better job of taking care of teachers.”
As in informal research project, he created an eight-question survey to find out if educators feel stressed or depressed, and what treatments they have access to. Many have shared that they are experiencing some symptoms of depression, he reports.
Levin encourages people to get the help they need.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” he says. “We need to reach out and ask for support. [Getting better] takes time and effort. You’re not responsible for your depression, but you are responsible for working toward your recovery.”
There’s one more basic he recommends: “Having a sense of hope is so crucial. You can and will get better.”
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What Works for Al Levin
Just breath: “If I feel any anxiety coming on, I love to breathe,” he says. “Belly breathing, in through the nose and out the mouth, three to five times slowly, is a great tool that we have access to at all times.”
Think it through: Levin serves as his own thought police—in a good way. “When I am having negative thoughts, I stop and try to rethink or reframe it into a positive.”
Write it out: Between blogging and journaling, Levin finds that writing down his feelings helps him process and deal with them in a healthy manner.
Step out: Levin admits he owns an elliptical machine, but doesn’t use it as much as he should. He recently bought a pedometer so he can see how many steps he takes per day and try to add more. “This gets me out of the house and gets me the alone time that sometimes I like to have, since we have four kids.”
Reach out: Connecting with others, whether playing a game with his kids or meeting a friend for coffee or a bike ride, helps Levin feel less alone.
Printed as “Everyday Heroes: Spreading the word,” Winter 2019
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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