On a mission to fight depression

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March 28, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// Mark Meier is planning a cross-country bike ride to talk about men struggling with mental illnesses //

The Coffee Shop Northeast is not a big place. And the high school girls gabbing excitedly at the next table over are well within earshot. But that doesn’t stop Windom Park resident Mark Meier from talking openly about the times he “messed around with suicide.” These days, he doesn’t even lower his voice.

There was the incident with the box cutter. Then there was the scarier incident with the 12-gauge shotgun, the time that landed Meier — who, as a clinically trained social worker, should have known better — in the psychiatric hospital. That was the time that ultimately forced him, at age 34, out of the closet, ending his 14-year, steadfast refusal to acknowledge his symptoms.

Like most men suffering from depression and anxiety, Meier didn’t want to talk about it. Prior to his hospitalization, he had walked out on counseling. He had been recommended prescription antidepressants and refused — and this from a guy who spent years studying mental illness in order to get a master’s degree in social work.

Ask him why, and you’ll get a familiar answer.

“Just the shame for me to have to admit that,” says Meier, 44, now an adjunct at the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work. “For me, I was so not going to be that guy. I just could not face the fact that it was me. And I was afraid of the medication.”

But today, all his friends know. His family knows. The graduate students that take his class on mood disorders know.  And beginning in May, when Meier embarks upon a 3,600-mile, cross-country bike ride to raise awareness about the alarming ways that depression affects men, thousands of people from Palo Alto, Calif., to New York City will know, too. He’ll ride with his 14-year-old daughter Anna and his friend Dan Hansen, a Northeast resident who operates group homes for people suffering from severe mental illnesses.

The journey will be the nationwide launch of FaceIt Foundation, a new nonprofit headquartered on Stinson Boulevard. Meier founded it in late 2009 with his best friend Bill Dehkes. Their goal, Meier says, is to get guys talking to each other about their moods — and to steer those men suffering silently from depression, as Meier had for so long, onto a path to recovery.

The softball story

Why focus on men?

According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, men are far more likely than women to complete a suicide, even though women are more apt to make an attempt. Men generally use more lethal methods, and they act more quickly on suicidal thoughts. And because men tend not to discuss their moods as much, they exhibit fewer warning signs, such as talking about suicide. In 2007, men accounted for 79 percent of the year’s 34,598 suicides in the U.S. — about 75 male suicides per day.

But Meier puts it in more local terms. At the coffee shop, he urges his friend to “tell the softball story.”

Dehkes, who is huge into softball and travels the country to compete in men’s leagues, is a go-to contact for the state’s top players. He says in the last three months, seven of these guys have called him up, bashfully admitting to suffering from emotional problems.

“They’ve been everywhere from ‘I’m kind of struggling with being down and depressed’ to ‘They’re taking me to the hospital because I tried to kill myself,’” says Dehkes.  “And every one of these guys knows the other guy. But none of them will say anything to the others.”

The moral of the story? Guys don’t talk to their friends about this stuff.

Meier could rail against the antidepressant market. Though he was on Lexapro for seven years after his hospitalization (“It helped me tremendously”), he shudders at the drugs’ over-prescription, the dearth of data on their long-term use, the studies that suggest that they may be useless in cases of moderate depression or that talk therapy is just as effective.

He could worry about the lack of accountability in the licensure of therapists. After his hospitalization, he says, he did individual counseling for six weeks “and found it to be pretty much a joke.”

But the main thing is just getting guys to talk. That’s a problem he can attack at the neighborhood level.

Taking it online

“An ideal model would be to have your friends be aware of what you’re going through. And to have your friends be willing to talk with you and connect with you,” Meier said. “We think there’s a grassroots movement that needs to happen. Just like in the AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] world, where you have other people looking out for you. Not just a doctor, not just a therapist.”

Step one, Meier says, is building what he calls “an online depression management system.” He envisions a social site that would act as both a clearinghouse for depression information and resources as well as a place where guys could meet and connect with other guys suffering from mood disorders.

“We gotta break down the stigma,” says Meier. “There’s evidence showing that phone counseling, Internet counseling is just as effective as face-to-face counseling. We believe that a guy is going to be more likely in the privacy of his own home to log into a computer system, check out this thing, get some interaction, get some tips.”

Kari Fletcher, an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas’ School of Social Work, sees the benefit of such a model. “Online counseling has the potential to reach an important demographic of people who live far away, benefit from 24/7 support, and so on,” she wrote in an email.

Long term, Meier fantasizes about one day opening an academic depression center in Northeast. As part of his bike tour, he’ll visit a few locations in the National Network of Depression Centers, a constellation of 18 major academic medical centers founded by University of Michigan’s Dr. John Greden. Meier would like to add a 19th center to the network.

Asked how he got over the depression-and-anxiety hump, Meier doesn’t deny the power of the Lexapro. But, he adds, “I started getting back to things that I hadn’t done. I started playing sports again. I started going back to church. I started communicating with my wife. I started living a life.

“Reconnection with my friends — which I will argue with any academician is as powerful a tool as there is out there. Does it replace therapy? No. Does therapy replace it? Hell no. I’m not saying we’re better. I’m saying you guys are ignoring a huge element of this.”