How a major depression turned a St. Paul school administrator into a mental health advocate
The first time major depression descended on his life, Al Levin did his best to explain it. A St. Paul Public School administrator and father of four young children, he attributed his heavy and hopeless feelings to a busy life.
“My first depression was easy to understand how and why it happened,” he said. “The stress of a new role as manager, managing a building that had challenges, and then coming home every night and just walking in the door and having a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and two new- born at home. It was a lot.
For a time, Levin kept his feelings locked away, not telling anyone but his wife about the fear and lifelessness that invaded his body. Mental illness seemed like a weakness to him and he didn’t want people to see him as weak. He didn’t miss work, but when his depression refused to go away, he saw a therapist, took an antidepressant, asked for a demotion at work, and somehow pulled himself out of the fog.
Life was getting easier and things were looking up. Then, three years after his first fight, Levin’s depression returned. This time was much harder than the first – and harder to explain.
“My second depression,” Levin said, “made the first look like a walk in the park.” Even more distressing, it seemed like it came out of nowhere: “I had a great job, a good supervisor, my kids were getting old.
This depression frightened Levin. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t control it and he realized he had to let the people around him know about his fight. When suicidal thoughts was beginning to fill his mind, Levin knew it was a life or death situation. He could no longer keep his mental illness a secret.
“I told my brother and my best friend, ‘My body feels different and it’s not going to be good.’ I could feel this one coming in. It was like heavy, dark rain clouds gathering before a dangerous storm.
Levin knew he had to deal with the turmoil building up in his mind and body. To do this, he had to put his pride aside and let others know what he was going through. He asked his supervisor to meet him for coffee and told him he was suffering from major depression.
Then he took a leave of absence and checked himself into a state of mental health partial hospitalization program.
During the three-week program, Levin spent his days at a local hospital, doing individual and group therapy and meeting with a psychiatrist who helped him sleep better and adjusted his antidepressants.
The experience was pivotal, Levin said: “I describe it as a boost to my recovery.”
Participating in the partial hospitalization program also opened Levin’s mind to the reality that mental illness is like physical illness: it can – and does happen – to anyone. And telling others about your experience is not a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of courage.
Levin decided that in the future he would not be ashamed of his mental health issues. He was going to be open and honest. In an effort to normalize conversations about mental illness, Levin began telling friends and colleagues about his experience with depression, even standing in front of a group of district administrators and sharing his story.
Before suffering from depression, Levin said: “If someone told me about mental illness, my first thought was people on the street asking for money. I realized from my own experience that it can happen to anyone at any time. It seemed like no one was talking about it, and that only added to the horrible stereotypes. As someone in a leadership position, I felt compelled to share my story. »
“Eliminating the Stigma”
Once Levin started talking openly about his experiences with mental illness, the floodgates opened. Whenever he has spoken about his depression – in a professional or personal setting, or as a qualified speaker through NAMI-Minnesota is in our own voice public education program — people came to see it, wanting to talk about their experiences with mental illness. It seemed too powerful to ignore. Levin knew he should turn into a mental health advocate.
“I was one of the last people anyone associated with depression,” he said. “I was known as the person who always had a smile on my face. It makes it all the more powerful to be someone people think is great, who has a family and a decent job, and who could fall into a major suicidal depression.
Levin started writing a blog focusing on men’s mental health. He has been invited to speak at conferences. Later he applied to be on Minnesota State Advisory Council on Mental Health and the state Suicide Prevention Task Force. As his audience grew, Levin started a podcast titled “The records of depression.”
At first, Levin explained, “The Depression Files” focused on “sharing stories of men struggling with depression and other mental illnesses.”
This focus was important to Levin, because he felt the lessons he learned as a boy and young man prevented him from getting the help he needed during his first depression. “I believe the stigma around mental health is stronger for men who typically don’t talk about their emotions and feelings,” he said. “We are told, ‘Don’t cry.’ ‘Be difficult.’ We grow up like that. That’s why I thought it was important to focus my podcast on men’s mental health.
Over the past few years, Levin said, “The Depression Files” has expanded to include “in-depth conversations with guest experts on mental health and mental illness. It allows me a ton of flexibility. The episodes feature interviews with actors, authors and athletes who talk about their experiences with mental illness, as well as researchers who study the biological and physical aspects of depression and other mental illnesses.
“The purpose of the podcast is to support those struggling with mental illness, educate about mental illness, and eliminate stigma,” Levin said. “The more people who are willing to share their stories, the more people will be willing to get help.”
Michael LandsbergCanadian sports journalist and former host of the show “First Up with Landsberg and Colaiacovo,” was a guest on “The Depression Files.” A person who lived with severe depression, Landsberg founded “SickNotWeaka Calgary-based charitable foundation dedicated to changing the way people think about mental illness. He said he and Levin connected for the first time on Twitter, and Levin invited him to come on his show.
“It didn’t take long for me to say yes,” Landsberg said. After listening to “The Depression Files”, he was excited to participate. Levin knows what he’s talking about, Landsberg explained, and that makes his podcast work: “He speaks the language of depression. I use the analogy of if you went to a foreign country and you didn’t hear anyone speaking English and that was the language you were speaking, if you finally met someone who spoke English you would be like, ‘ Oh my God. Someone finally understands me. That’s how I felt in my conversation with Al. He understands.”
Breaking down stereotypes
Being open about his mental health issues now seems like second nature to Levin, but it hasn’t always been so easy. He thinks it’s important to tell people how he had to fight his own stereotypes to truly find healing. An important part of his recovery was letting go of shame and realizing that depression or other mental health issues can happen to anyone.
At first, when his depression still seemed new and shameful, Levin said he went to great lengths to appear as “normal” as possible. Because he was hiding the truth about himself, Levin said, everything — even taking his prescription — was tense: “Every time I went to Walgreens, I would walk through the whole store before going up to the pharmacy counter. I didn’t want a neighbor to hear that I was asking for an antidepressant.
Much of this shame came from his own ideas about what kind of people suffer from mental illness. Because he was a respected member of the community, he believed, people would think of him less if they knew he had been diagnosed with depression.
“I saw myself as a person who had been a principal in a huge school district, a leader,” Levin said. “I realized how difficult it had been for me to ask for help. I had never had any mental health problem in my life. I had horrible stereotypes about mental illness in my head.
It took a deep, suicidal depression to finally shatter Levin’s stereotypes of mental illness. Now that he’s out in the open, he’s grateful he’s not alone. These days, as the vice-principal of a busy K-8 school, he thinks a general change in society’s attitude towards mental health has encouraged other to talk about their mental health issues – and he thinks that’s a major improvement.
“More celebrities are talking about it now, more athletes are talking about it now,” Levin said. “It’s become more common to hear these stories.” Now that he has cast aside his own stereotypes, Levin sees the world with new eyes. “So many people are affected by mental illness, whether it is themselves or a loved one. It’s really unbelievable. I want the work that I do to reflect that, to start those conversations, because if we do that, we can save lives.