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How major depression turned a St. Paul school administrator into a mental health advocate

Levin started a blog focused on men’s mental health, because he felt like the lessons he learned as a boy and young man held him back from getting the help he needed during his first depression.

Al Levin
Participating in the partial-hospitalization program opened Al Levin’s mind to the reality that mental illness is like physical illness: It can — and does — happen to anyone.
Supplied

The first time major depression descended on his life, Al Levin did his best to explain it away. A St. Paul public school administrator and father of four young children, he chalked his heavy, hopeless feelings up 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 a principal, running a building that had challenges, and then coming home each night and just stepping in the door and having a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and two newborns at home. It was a lot.”  

For a time, Levin kept his feelings bottled up, not telling anyone other than his wife about the dread and lifelessness that was taking over his body. Mental illness felt like a weakness to him, and he didn’t want people to think of him as weak. He didn’t take any time off work, but when his depression refused to lift, he saw a therapist, went on an antidepressant medication, 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 bout, Levin’s depression returned. This time felt much tougher than the first — and harder to explain away. 

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“My second depression,” Levin said, “made the first one seem like a walk in the park.” Even more distressing,  it felt like it came out of nowhere: “I had a great job, a good supervisor, my kids were getting older.” 

This depression frightened Levin. Try as he might, he couldn’t control it, and he realized he had to let the people around him know about his struggle. When thoughts of suicide began to fill his mind, Levin knew that this was a life-or-death situation. He couldn’t keep his mental illness a secret anymore. 

“I said to my brother and my best friend, ‘My body feels different and this is not going to be good.’ I could feel that one coming on.” It was like heavy, dark rain clouds gathering before a dangerous storm. 

Levin knew he had to address the turmoil building in his mind and body. To do that, he’d have 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 that he was experiencing major depression. 

Then he took time off work and checked himself into a 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 get better sleep and adjusted his antidepressants. 

The experience was essential, Levin said: “I describe it as a kickstart 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 is actually a sign of courage. 

Levin decided that going forward he wasn’t going to be ashamed of his mental health struggles. He was going to be open and honest. With a goal of normalizing conversations about mental illness, Levin began telling his friends and colleagues about his experience with depression, even standing up in front of a group of district administrators and sharing his story.  

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Before experiencing depression, Levin said, “If someone mentioned mental illness to me, my first thought was people on the street who were asking for money. I realized through my own experience that this can happen to anybody at any time. It seemed like nobody was talking about it, and that was only adding to the awful stereotypes. As a person in a leadership position, I felt compelled to share my story.” 

‘Chip away at the stigma’

Once Levin began speaking openly about his experiences with mental illness, the floodgates opened. Every time he talked about his depression — in a work or personal setting, or as a trained speaker through NAMI-Minnesota’s In Our Own Voice public education program — people came up to him, wanting to talk about their experiences with mental illness. This felt too powerful to ignore. Levin knew he’d have to transform himself into a mental health advocate.  

“I was one of the last people someone would associate with depression,” he said. “I was known as the person who always had a smile on his face. That makes it all the more powerful to be someone who people think is just fine, who has a family and a decent job, and could fall into a major suicidal depression.”  

Levin started writing a blog focused on men’s mental health. He was invited to speak at conferences. Later he applied to be on Minnesota State Advisory Council on Mental Health and the state Suicide Prevention Taskforce. As his audience grew, Levin launched a podcast called “The Depression Files.”  

In the early days, Levin explained, “The Depression Files” focused on “sharing stories of men who struggled with depression and other mental illnesses.” 

This focus was important to Levin, because he felt like the lessons he learned as a boy and young man held him back from getting the help he needed during his first depression. “I believe the stigma around mental health is stronger for men who aren’t typically talking about their emotions and their feelings,” he said. “We’re told, ‘Don’t cry.’ ‘Be tough.’ We grow up that way. That’s why I felt it was important to focus my podcast on men’s mental health.”  

In recent years, Levin said, “The Depression Files” has expanded to include “deep-dive conversations with guest experts on mental health and mental illness. That allows me a ton of flexibility.” Episodes feature interviews with actors, authors and athletes who talk about their experiences with mental illness, as well as with researchers who study the biological and physical aspects of depression and other mental illness. 

 “The goal of the podcast it to support those struggling with mental illness, to educate around mental illness and chip away at the stigma,” Levin said. “The more people who are willing to share their stories, the more people will be willing to get help.” 

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Michael Landsberg, a Canadian sports journalist and former host of TSN’s “First Up with Landsberg and Colaiacovo,” has been a guest on “The Depression Files.” A person who has lived with severe depression, Landsberg founded “SickNotWeak,” a Calgary-based charitable foundation dedicated to changing the way people view mental illness. He said that he and Levin first connected on Twitter, and Levin invited him to come on his show. 

Michael Landsberg
Michael Landsberg
“It didn’t take long for me to say yes,” Landsberg said. After listening to “The Depression Files,” he was excited to take part. 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 speak English and that was the language you spoke, if you finally met one who spoke English you’d be like, ‘Oh my God. Somebody finally understands me.’ That’s how my conversation with Al felt. He understands.” 

Staring down stereotypes

Being open about his mental health struggles seems like second nature to Levin now, but it wasn’t always that easy. He thinks it’s important to tell people about how he had to fight against his own stereotypes to truly find healing. An important part of his recovery was dropping the shame and realizing that depression or other mental health issues can happen to anyone.

In the early days, when his depression still felt new and shameful, Levin said he went to great lengths just to appear as “normal” as possible. Because he was hiding the truth about himself, Levin said, everything — even picking up his prescription — felt fraught:  “Every time I went to Walgreens, I would walk through the entire store before I went 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 the kind of people who had a mental illness. Because he was a respected member of the community, he believed, people would think less of him if they knew he had been diagnosed with depression. 

 “I saw myself as a person who’d been a principal in a huge school district, a leader,” Levin said. “I realized how difficult it had been for me to reach out for help. I had never had any kind of mental health concerns in my life. I carried some awful stereotypes in my mind about mental illness.” 

It took a deep, suicidal depression to finally bust Levin’s stereotypes about mental illness. Now that he’s out in the open, he’s grateful that he’s not alone. These days, as an assistant principal at a busy K-8 school, he believes that a general societal attitude shift about mental health has encouraged others to come forward about their mental health struggles — 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’s set aside his own stereotypes, Levin  sees the world with new eyes. “So many people are touched by mental illness, whether it is themselves or a loved one. It is really incredible. I want the work I do to reflect that, to start those conversations, because if we do that we can save lives.”