For the first part of his adult life, Dan Foley lived under a cloud of depression. It wasn’t a crippling depression, but rather a low-level feeling of sadness that constantly colored his everyday life.
“It wasn’t a diagnosed clinical depression,” Foley said. “I was always able to work and live my life. I’m a teacher. I did fine with that. I’m a parent. I did fine with that. But there was always this sadness and disappointment that I carried around with me.”
To a point, Foley was open about his mental health, though he kept some of his most frightening thoughts to himself. Then, one day when he was in the middle of a particularly rough patch, a colleague asked how he was doing.
“I said,” he recalled, “‘I’m struggling with my depression again.’ She said, ‘You should try this group that my husband goes to.’”
Foley’s colleague was talking about Face It, a Twin Cities-based support organization for men with depression. The group, founded in 2009 by Mark Meier and Bill Dehkes, was built on the idea that the support of other men is key to helping men understand and recover from depression and reduce the rate of male suicide.
Foley, who’d toyed with the idea of suicide himself over the years, decided to check this group out. Though he’d always had male friends, he’d never talked to them about his depression.
“I was very reluctant to bring this up with other guys,” Foley said. “I was sort of assuming they wouldn’t want to hear about it.”
At his first Face It meeting, Foley met a group of men like him, men who’d lived with depression and were open about their own mental health struggles and interested in hearing about his. Foley said he loved the feeling of having a group of other men he could be open and vulnerable with. After attending several meetings, he began to notice a change in himself.
“The main thing Face It did for me is I got some hope,” Foley said. “I felt like I really believed that things could change. For years, my depression felt organic and it felt like a part of who I was. I was just going to be depressed the rest of my life. When I started going to Face It, I started to buy in to how it can be different. I started to catch myself when I’d start on the negative thinking.”
Meier, who founded Face It with his cousin-by-marriage Dehkes, said that the goal of the nonprofit is simple: to help men face up to depression with the support and guidance of other men. While Meier, who’s worked as a counselor and served on University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work faculty, believes that talk therapy and medications are good tools to help people manage mental illness, another tool that many men lack is the nonjudgmental support of other men. Face It is designed to help give men what they have been missing.
“Many men just don’t have any real friends,” Meier said. “They have people they fish with or golf with, but they don’t have intimate friends. We talk about depression and anxiety as drivers to suicide. A very common denominator is men are lonely. They have the burden of concerns that men aren’t allowed to speak about in public or at work.”
Though Meier and Dehkes considered themselves close before they founded Face It, they’d never spoken to each other openly about their mental health. Meier sees this as an example of how too often men keep their relationships with other men on a surface level. This reality, he believes, may be the reason so many men continue to struggle despite all the treatment options that are available to them.
“Face It was born out of the notion that we have a ton of clinical interventions available to people. It is not difficult to get a prescription or you can access to therapy in a bunch of ways, but you are pretty hard-pressed to find a place where you can take off the shield and meet a guy who is going through what you’re going through.”
A shared history
To the outside world, Meier looked as though he had everything going for him. He had a happy marriage, three kids, a good job. But on the inside he was eaten up by depression, something he’d struggled with for years but never talked to anyone about.
“I always had this overriding sense that I was the only one dealing with these problems,” he said. “I couldn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. My dad never talked to me about this stuff. It was just this one thing that I carried around with me every day. I had this notion that I must be the problem. I must be really broken.”
By 2002, Meier’s depression had grown so overwhelming that one night he came close to killing himself. The sleeping cries of his youngest child pulled him away from the attempt, but he ended up in the hospital for psychiatric treatment. Meier and his wife told few people about the experience. But then he decided to end his silence. Middle-aged white men have the highest rates of suicide in the United States, and Meier decided to use his experience to help others, giving talks about men and suicide at local churches and organizations.
One Sunday, Dehkes and his wife, Wendy (Wendy and Meier are first cousins), were at church when they saw Meier’s name on the schedule. He was going to give a talk about men and depression.
Dehkes and Meier saw each other at family events and enjoyed each other’s company. “Back then we used to call Mark ‘The Golden Child,’” Dehkes said. “He had everything: a great job, a wife, kids, a house, cars — everything. When he wouldn’t show up to family functions, I was like, ‘Maybe Mark is too good for us.’”
When Dehkes went to Meier’s presentation, he heard a different story.
“He started talking about mental health,” Dehkes recalled. “It was an interesting topic to me because I had struggled with my mental health for years.” Meier described his suicide attempt and hospitalization. “As a family we knew nothing about it,” Dehkes said. “After, I went up to him and said, ‘I never thought depression was real, but how you just described your life, that’s my story, too. I’ve felt the same way.”
This confession brought Dehkes and Meier closer. They began spending more time together, talking about their shared history of depression. For both men, this open way of communicating was a new experience. “I realized that Mark was someone in my life that I could talk to,” Dehkes said. “Most guys don’t have that connection.”
For many men, stuffing emotions is a protective impulse, Meier said. “As a man, you carry around this notion that if you reveal your vulnerabilities you’re dead in the water. You’ll lose your career, your family. That’s why it’s hard for men to make friends.”
After opening up about his depression, Meier started thinking about launching a nonprofit designed to help other men like himself. He thought that Dehkes could be the perfect person to help make this dream a reality.
He knew that Dehkes was going through a transition at work, so he called him, told him about his idea and asked, “Would you be interested in joining me?” Both men talked to their wives, who agreed to support them financially as they set out to build their nonprofit.
They started forming Face It’s first peer support group, but Dehkes and Meier both felt that their organization needed more attention to grow. In 2011, they decided to do a cross-country bike ride from San Francisco to New York — Meier would bike and Dehkes would follow in a borrowed RV — stopping at towns along the route to give talks and raise awareness about men, depression and suicide.
The bike ride turned out to be a key factor in Face It’s growth. “Before we went, we had one support group,” Dehkes said. “During the ride, we did about 45 presentations. That led us to other connections. We did events with Mayo, the U of M, Hennepin County. People would start saying, ‘I know this guy who is really hurting. Can you talk to him?’”
Membership in the nonprofit’s one support group swelled, and soon Dehkes and Meier were dividing that group into smaller groups. When a Face It member wrote an essay about the group that was published in the Star Tribune, even more men joined. Today, more than a decade since its inception, Face It has 23 individual support groups and some 215 members.
Most men in Face It’s groups are much like Dehkes and Meier. “The vast majority of our men are age 40-55 — middle-age, middle-class white guys,” Dehkes said. “We’re the group with the highest risk factor for suicide out there.”
While many Face It members say they have considered ending their lives or have attempted suicide in the past, so far, Dehkes said, none of the organization’s members has died by suicide: “Over the 10 years that we’ve been doing this we don’t know of a single person that’s ever taken their life that’s come through Face It. When you’re dealing with the highest risk-factor age group, that really says something.”
Foley said that when his own life was taken over by depression, thoughts of death were common.
“For a long time just all day, every day I thought about suicide,” he said. “I never had a specific plan but I definitely thought, ‘A massive heart attack right now would be great.’”
In the years since he joined Face It, Foley has volunteered to lead two Face It support groups in his hometown of Northfield. He said that suicide is often discussed in the groups, but somehow the support of other men helps pull members away from acting on their impulses.
“We have guys in groups that have attempted suicide,” Foley said. “Almost everyone in the group has thought about it and wished for an early death. Somehow knowing you have a group of other men there who care about you and have your back makes you realize that life is actually worth living.”
Dan Salmon heard about Face It when he read the Star Tribune essay. As a man who’d struggled with anxiety and depression for most of his life, the idea of joining a support group for men with the same mental health concerns was appealing.
He called Face It, and Meier matched him with a peer support group. While he was concerned that he might not feel comfortable telling a bunch of strange men about his deepest concerns, Salmon soon realized that the group was a safe place where he could be himself.
“I believe our society really looks down on a man who cries,” Salmon said. “They are considered weak — that’s not the way a man is supposed to act. Face It brings that issue to the forefront and helps people realize that it is OK for men to be vulnerable.”
For Salmon, the peer group quickly became an important tool. He’d been a regular participant for more than a year when Meier asked him to lead a group of his own. Salmon was happy to take on the responsibility. “Peer groups quickly build a very deep trust and depth in their conversation,” he said. “It is a very safe place, and all the members see it. That’s one aspect that gives people a lot of solace.”
Many men feel that being open about their mental health is risky, Salmon said: If you admit to not feeling strong at all times, there is a chance that another man might see you as weak. Thanks to Face It, Salmon was able to realize that being open and vulnerable is actually a sign of strength and humanity. He’s taken that truth to heart in all aspects of his life.
“I’ve had a number of experiences when I’ve talked to people about what I’m going through in my depression and anxiety and they’ve said, ‘I can understand that. I need to work on that, too.’ When you are vulnerable, some of that machismo goes away.”
Face It participants appreciate the group’s single-gender focus, Meier said. It helps relieve some of the pressure that can be connected to relationships between the sexes, and makes it easier for men to feel that they can be totally open and honest with each other.
“A single-gender group has been important,” he said. “If you look at who delivers therapy in this country, it is by and large women. For a lot of men the notion of being vulnerable in front of a woman is a recipe for, ‘You’ll never see me again after one session.’ We want to build relationships that last.”
That idea works, Meier said: Many men stick with their Face It peer groups for years.
“It becomes a friend network. It becomes a life sounding board. We talk about everything from jobs to relationships to kids to, ‘How the fuck am I going to retire?’ We’re not a 12-step program. We’re not a religious organization. We’re really just a gathering place where guys can talk to each other.”
The reality of COVID-19 has forced Face It to temporarily change the way it works. In March, all peer support groups moved online. The response to this change has been mixed; Meier reported that some members have stopped attending, and individual donations are down, but Salmon and Foley said that they are actually experiencing increased interest in their meetings.
Salmon said that though members of his group say they miss meeting in person, they also tell him they appreciate the convenience of a virtual meeting: “Guys don’t have to get in their cars to come to the meetings. I live 15 miles away from the Face It office. If you hit something like that at 6 on a Tuesday night it’s a big time commitment.”
Because his group knows each other so well, Salmon said that after some early hiccups with the meeting platform, the energy level has been strong and attendance overall is up.
“Our typical cadence was to meet once every two weeks in the Face It office,” he said. “Now we’re meeting every week, with one meeting lasting two hours and the other one hour.”
Foley reported that attendance is down a bit in his groups, but he also said that many of the men that show up at the virtual meetings are more involved than they were in the past. Many are feeling anxious and vulnerable during this unsettled time: The group — virtual or not — is a lifeline.
“I personally know 20 or 30 guys who have been really struggling and are doing so much better thanks to Face It,” Foley said. After spending time with a peer support group, he explained, “Guys start to realize that the other guys in the group care about them. When you hear someone’s personal story, that’s a unique connection, something that holds you up for a long, long time.”