Who The Folk?! Al Levin

Al Levin went from school administrator in St. Paul to a man suffering from depression unable to find his way out. Levin has recovered, and now uses his experiences to help others through his blog and an every-other-week podcast. Find out Al’s story – and why he continues to help others – in this week’s Who The Folk?!

How was being pulpit speaker at Mount Zion a couple weeks ago?

It went well. We did a “Food for Thought” before the service, and that had a great turnout. It was part of what we organized as a mental health task force for JDAIM (Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month). That went really well. I think it was one of the larger turnouts we had. Then I did a 15-minute talk during the service.

You have a podcast that focuses on depression, so you are open to talking about this.

Very much so. It took some time for me to feel comfortable talking about it.

How did you get so passionate about the mental health issues?

In 2010, I was promoted to a principal position in St. Paul Public Schools and had many challenges right off the bat that probably most principals have. It was very challenging. I didn’t feel as supported as I think I could’ve been. At home I had [kids ages] 5, 3, and two newborns, so the two together were obviously adding to the stress. I started experiencing symptoms: Not being able to eat and having a knot in my stomach. Losing weight, and not being able to sleep very well at all – just rolling around being fearful of the next day. I found myself driving down the highway at 40 mph because I didn’t want to go to school. My brother is a family doctor and he’s a huge support for me and he told me I had to see my doctor.

I found myself pacing back and forth across his office; I literally could not sit down. The doctor walked in and said ‘Al, this is not you. What’s going on?’ I told him my story and he said it was depression. Probably a situational depression given the stresses. The doctor put me on some medication and recommended I see a talk therapist. I started getting better in the next couple months, and managed at work and got through it. I stayed for two years as principal and asked for a voluntary demotion so I could spend more time with my family. I moved to a different school as an assistant principal and after one year, I got a new boss who is still my boss. In October, my brother pointed out it was three years later from my last depression. I told him my body feels different and this isn’t going to be good. Everything was going well. Sure enough, I fell into a depression that made my first one feel like a walk in the park. I lost almost 50 pounds. I was having major crying bouts that I couldn’t control. My wife and I talked and we decided I should ask my boss for some time off. He said I needed to figure it out and get healthy. I left the coffee shop and the first thing he did was to call my wife and tell her I was on my way home.

It’s amazing to have that kind of support from your boss.

It’s really helpful. I started some different medication and thought taking time off would allow the meds to kick in, but taking that time off was, in hindsight, very bad. I would make lists of very simple things. I couldn’t do anything. I told my wife I would take a nap. I would close the door and not sleep a wink. I think there were a couple times where I was sleeping 10 hours a week. I was losing a lot of weight again. After those two weeks, I tried to go back to work, and in those two weeks off, I had generalized thoughts of suicide. One of the most paradoxical things I’ve heard is that anti-depressants come with a warning that says they can cause suicidal ideation. He increased the dosage, and the thoughts increased to the point I had a plan. The plan continued to go in my head. These thoughts would come to my head randomly. I couldn’t stop them. One night I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream where I was in the middle of the plan. I asked my wife and sister to go with me to the psychiatrist to help and explain and advocate for me. I took three weeks off and checked into a partial hospitalization program where I went to the program from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and then came home.

It sounds like that program was the right one for you, then?

It was a difficult decision to take three weeks off and that comes down to shame. What was I going to tell people the reason was? Some people leave that program and go to a step-down program where they go half-days or three days per week. I thought that would be more stressful to explain to people. That program was a fantastic kick-start to my recovery. I saw a therapist soon after who said after a major depression, it’ll take a full year. I was able to share that with my boss. He was super supportive.

When did you feel comfortable talking so publically about it?

Probably a couple of years after my depression that I was feeling healthy and started blogging about it. That’s still up and running. To this day, I’m going to a men’s support group twice a month for anxiety and depression. I became passionate because I didn’t want anybody at all to be in the place I was in. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. And I wanted people to understand what depression really means. They have a misconception that it’s sadness. Through my advocacy, I can educate people that it’s much more than sadness, and may not even entail sadness at all. I had this idea to start the podcast, The Depression Files, where I interview men who have been through depression. It’s obviously difficult for everyone, but I think it’s different for me and there’s not a ton of resources out there for men. I think the stigma is different and a little tougher because men are supposed to be these tough guys who can handle anything on their own. Unfortunately, due to the stigma, mental illness and depression are seen as a weakness, which internalizes and that stigma turns to shame and they don’t want to get help.

Who’s the interview subject you’ve gotten the most out of?

I learn something from every interview. And I love interviewing them because I learn so much. One of the most intriguing interviews was one of the first ones. He’s a Hollywood producer named Eric Thirteen. It was interesting because he deals with his own depression and creates movies. He was in the middle of creating a short film where the major underlying theme was of depression and suicidal ideation. He brought humor into it. What I learn most is that many of the men I’ve interviewed weren’t just depression diagnoses but bi-polar. I love the interviews and I’m excited to be able to say that the men who have finished the interviews were thankful and got a lot out of it themselves.

Do you get a lot of personal feedback from people?

Absolutely. That’s very rewarding for me. I get a lot of that feedback from people on Twitter. It’s feedback from all walks of life. It has been incredibly rewarding and makes me want to continue. I don’t get paid and it’s pretty time consuming, but I believe that it helps others. What helps me is that it’s therapeutic to help others. It’s part of why I go to the men’s support group. We support one another. If I’m feeling down I can share that in a trusting environment. These interviews, I weave my story in. The interviews I try to keep down to earth. Someone bumped into the podcast and felt like he was eavesdropping on a conversation between friends. It’s free-flowing. I don’t come with a list of questions. It’s important to me to be a really good interview, so I’m listening to different interviews that I think are good so I can get better at it.

Who do you want to get for the podcast?

A lot never write but I try to reach out to huge names: Owen Wilson and Michael Phelps. Other actors that are hugely well-known and open about their depression.

Do you think mental health awareness is a Jewish issue or a human issue?

I think it’s a human issue. One of the things I did was share with Rabbi Spilker at Mount Zion that I wanted to share with him I went through this, and if I could be of help it would be fantastic. He said we’re putting together the Mental Health Task Force and I ended up co-chairing. Our entire focus on JDAIM was mental health-focused at Mount Zion.

After my talk, a woman came up and praised it. She was from another temple and said we seemed miles ahead and open, and asked if I would talk there. Throughout my major depression, it was so difficult to go out of the house. One place that it was comforting was going to temple on the holidays. There was something about knowing what was going to happen. It was comforting. For temples and places of faith to be open and supportive is a great place to start to chip away at the stigma, and make an opening and welcoming community. Why not start there?

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