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Interrupting the Story: How Survivor Mark Meier Turned his Fight Against Depression into a Fight for Men’s Mental Health

By September 26, 2021January 22nd, 20228 Comments

After battling depression and anxiety for many years, Mark Meier almost lost his own life to suicide. The pain and mental instability he had struggled with for so long almost pushed him over the edge, but the cry from his then infant daughter interrupted his plan and saved his life. From there, he worked to come out from the darkness and regained his mental wellbeing. Meier decided he needed to help others, so in 2009 he and Bill Dehkes founded the Face It Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping men understand and overcome depression and reduce the troublingly high rates of male suicide. Through peer support, men’s support groups and public advocacy, Face It has done tremendous work toward helping others and ending the stigma around depression and mental illness. 

MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna got the chance to speak candidly with Meier about both their journeys with mental illness, why it is so important to end the stigma around men discussing their mental health and the validation that comes with helping someone who is struggling. 

Patrick:

I’m excited to be talking to you today because mental health is very near and dear to my life. I dealt with depression during college, then in 2017 I was diagnosed with bipolar after having a major manic episode. I spent time in a behavior health unit. Since then, I’ve had some bouts with depression, but starting in 2018 I was able to straighten out my medication and really get and stay healthy for the most part. It took a lot of work, but since then, I’ve very much felt like I will be screaming from the mountain top about this stuff forever. So talking to you about your organization feels very personal and is a thrill. 

Mark:

Well I’m glad. And I’m glad you’re doing well. It’s such a crazy journey, and anytime spent on any sort of psych floor or behavioral health unit is intense. It’s a very intense time. You learn things from the intensity of all that.

Patrick:

Absolutely. I’m very fortunate to have the family and support system I have. I wanted to start out by letting you take me through a bit of your journey. When did your experiences with depression get to its lowest, and what was like to come out of that and get better? 

Mark:

I think I can trace back to my earliest memories with bouts of anxiety and a sense of not fitting in. It felt like not being smart enough or not being good enough. And I can take that all the way back to childhood, real early on. It impacted me as I grew up in many ways. I think that fear of failure became a big thing in my head. I would go 190 miles an hour to do everything I could to set up my world so there’s no way I would fail, including avoiding situations or not trying in situations where I could have really excelled and grown. It seems like some of those traits almost about everybody that I meet deals with that at one point or another in their lives.

I think the anxiety piece, and certainly depression, followed me all through high school. Then it got really bad when I was in college. That’s when it first really impacted me to the degree of real external evidence of how bad I was struggling. Lots of crying, a lot of anxious behaviors. My God, I would run and bike with no actual health benefit to it other than trying to stay sane. I was running and cycling from my head more than anything. There was a lot of acting out, a lot of drinking. Anything I could do to try to get ahold of my head.

Patrick:

Sure. 

Mark: 

I had my first real serious bouts of suicidal thinking in college. I went to school here in Minneapolis, and we have two campuses that are divided by the Mississippi River. There’s a bridge that separates the two campuses that’s very high up, so if you fall from it, you die. I would catch myself on drunken nights hanging out on the other side of the railing, contemplating jumping. And I was like, “Holy shit, this is bad.” So, I went and saw a psychologist and counselor at school. I got told “You’re anxious, you’re depressed, we need to deal with it.” I said, “Nah, I’m good,” and walked away. 

Subsequently, you muscle through. You white knuckle. You figure it out. I finished college and actually went to grad school. I got married had kids — all the stuff you’re supposed to do — and was just not doing well still.  My wife and I will be married 30 years this fall, and she was very helpful.  She probably kept me alive for many years. And then once my kids were born, I had that whole new impetus to try to get better and figure this out. And it all came to heed when I was in my mid-thirties. I found myself at a job that I didn’t want. It was overwhelming and stressful, and I just fricking collapsed. I just ran out of gas.

Patrick: 

Yeah, makes perfect sense. 

Mark:

For about three or four months, I started planning my suicide. I mean, I had a day and time in mind. I started to create a plan. I was going to do it. That time arrived and obviously it didn’t happen. My daughter interrupted my plan. I ended up in the hospital, and that’s pushing 20 years ago now. So, I was in the hospital. I was in the hospital for a long time.

Patrick:

That’s definitely scary. I share a kinship there.

Mark:

When I got out, I did the outpatient program, and I went to therapy. I ended up meeting a therapist who was pretty instrumental in my life. He used the two words of “Now what?” very appropriately to challenge me. I wish I could say that from that point forward everything was rosy. It’s fits and starts, and I had plenty of time to make a lot of mistakes and dig out of those holes. I don’t think about suicide, but I certainly still wrestle with anxiety.

I’ve had a lot of traumatic things happen in my life. I now know some of those kinds of traumas impact us in many ways. I still deal with some of that, and the interesting thing to me as I observe it now is cognitively, I know what’s happening. But physiologically, within my body, it’s still what happens. I mean, I’m sure you’re well aware what I’m saying.

Patrick:

Totally.  You have that trauma that doesn’t go way.

Mark:

Yes. So, the good thing at this point is I’m far more capable of wrapping my arms around what’s going on. The biggest thing for me is not exacerbating it by making bad choices. I feel very fortunate. Just like you, I have an amazing supportive network. My immediate family, my wife and my three kids are really good people. I have really good friends. I have people who care about me. I have a part of my personality that I’d like to fancy myself as somebody who’s persevered, and I wear that proudly on the inside of my head. 

Patrick:

You should.

Mark:

You keep fighting, you know?

Patrick:

Absolutely. I really appreciate you sharing that. Were there things you remember that therapist you talked about earlier instilling in you that you still use for yourself or pass on to other people you’ve encountered who are struggling?

Mark:

He really challenged me to interrupt the story I was telling myself. I’ve worked with a lot of guys here at Face It and throughout my career –and this is true for women as well — and I’ve learned we get a story going.  When you’re depressed or anxious, or when you’re battling not feeling good about who you are or you’re making bad decisions, we get this story going. This therapist really got me to poke a hole in that story and to ask, “Is this really what’s going on.” 

We have a guy around here at Face It that says this all the time, “Is it a good story or is it a true story?” A good story can actually have very negative connotations because we can get lost in our story of victimhood. We can get lost in our story of thinking nobody loves me or cares about me, so that becomes our good story. The problem is it’s not a good story, and it’s not even a true story. Learning to live in the moment and to really be cognizant of what is actually happening in my life has been critical.

Patrick:

Lifesaving, I’m sure. 

Mark:

There’s a lot of men that live via a fantasy and it’s an ugly fantasy. Most importantly, it’s not reality. I get why we create that fantasy because we carry pain, trauma, and shame. It feels as though it’s the only way we can navigate what can be a very difficult world at times. But it’s ultimately so detrimental to your own wellbeing and certainly the wellbeing of other that you interact with.

Patrick:

Absolutely. It’s a hard but important cycle to break.  What led you to starting Face It Foundation and what is the progression of this group from when you started it to where we are right now?

Mark:

There’s a couple of factors. I have may master’s degree in social work and my background is social work, and I’ve worked in various mental health capacities. What I’m about to say is not a rip on the mental health community, it’s just that there are some gaping holes. A lot of men go through life not knowing how to talk about what’s going on. Therapy is an opportunity for people to get some skills and to get some tools, but eventually therapy ends. Eventually, you are out on your own. If you are out on your own without a supportive family or a supportive partner, it’s tough to overcome these things we’re talking about. Our whole point of Face It is to help guys have friends. We don’t charge for anything. Our groups, our retreats, our programs, anything. We sell friendship for free.

What we’re trying to do is help people connect. It’s interesting because I was one of those guys that everybody assumed everything was going my way. People assumed I had tons friends. And I do. I have a ton of people in my life, but I didn’t know how to tell any of them what was really going on. 

We wanted to create that space that gives people a place to talk about what’s really happening. If you think about it, when someone goes to an inpatient hospital for drug or alcohol treatment, the minute they walk out that front door, there are any number of 12-step groups. Regardless of the merit of the program, no matter what, 12-step groups give you people. 

Patrick:

Yeah, you’re right.

Mark:

If you walk out of a psych hospital like I did or a number of men I’ve met over the years have…72 hours earlier you tried to kill yourself, and now you’re on your own. There is no AA or NA for people who survived suicide. It’s great you can see a therapist, but a therapist is not your buddy. That’s not a therapist’s job. So, we’re trying to fill a small niche with providing people a connection, because it’s scary and lonely when you walk out those front doors of a hospital.

Patrick:

Absolutely. I like what you said about friendship because MenLiving is a group where we want to be able to provide that support to someone who needs it.  We also just want to be a space for men to connect because they need friendship. There have been countless studies that show the loneliness that men experience contributes significantly to higher rates of suicide attempts and deaths by men. So, allowing for that space where men can create bonds can be quite literally lifesaving. To feel heard and validated by your peers is so huge.

 What do you hear from the guys that come to Face It when it comes to what stands in the way for them for reaching out for help? 

Mark:

Shame and fear. I mean, we’ve challenged hundreds of men to connect with people they assumed they couldn’t share what was going on. And hundreds of men have reached out to a buddy or some guy that they said, “Yeah, okay. This guy’s probably safe and he’ll at least hear me.” 99.9% of the time that guy will do that and report back and say, “You know what, that guy said I struggle too.” 

From my experience, most people in our lives do care about us. The questions they have about what’s going on are just that: questions. They’re not judgements. But it’s fear and shame they feel. I think as guys begin to understand that they’re okay. They may be making poor choices but that can change. People change all the time. People grow, make amends, and get better. People need to know they do matter. By understanding that – which I’m still working on every single day of my life – makes it okay to say to somebody, “I need help. And I don’t even need you to fix it, I just need you to hear what I’m up to, and please don’t leave me when you realize that I need your help.”

Patrick:

Exactly. Men seem to associate asking for help with not being a good enough provider to their partner and your children. Men just need to be told they’re enough and they can get better. Regarding stigma, there’s especially a stigma around men talking about their mental health with other men. That’s something we at MenLiving talk about a lot. Meeting men where they’re at is so, so it’s important.

Mark:

Well, guys are so great at comparing situations.  We have guys here who will say, “Well, I’ve never been in the hospital. I’ve never tried to take my life, so I don’t even want to hear it.” And it’s like, okay, this is what we’re talking about. I would give anything to go back and have not lit some of the fires I’ve lit over the years I’ve been alive because you carry that forth and there are scars with those decisions you’ve made. Part of what I think I did was if I didn’t think it was a big enough fire, then I didn’t deserve to ask for help. Rather than saying, “That’s a pretty good fire. It’s okay to ask for help,” I threw cans of gasoline on the fire. Because I need to make this bigger so people can really see how bad it is.

 We don’t have to do that. It’s okay to just ask for help before you light everything on fire. And I’m hoping that’s what we’re teaching younger men.

Patrick:

It’s definitely being learned by my generation. I can say with certainty a lot of people have responded to something I’ve said or posted on social media about my mental health experiences and struggles and in some way say they feel similarly and want help. It’s not linear and it’s not one thing. 

By telling our stories, whether it involves a hospitalization or something that’s a little more intense, we can say with honesty, “It’s going to be scary and hard, but it’s going to be okay. I’m going to tell you why and how you can get healthy. Your life is not over. 

Mark:

And you perceive it to be over, right? I mean, the reason I decided taking my life was a good idea was because my life story was done. It had been written, the final period had been put at the last sentence and it was just time to go. That was what my brain was thinking. And it wasn’t even remotely true. The next few chapters were hard to write, but I’m grateful I got to write them.

Patrick:

Yeah. And you’re still writing them. It’s ongoing story. 

Mark:

Yeah, amen to that. 

Patrick:

It’s like your mind is a book editor just being like, “No, you get back in there, keep working.”

Mark:

Try again.

Patrick:

I’m curious to hear more about what you think groups like MenLiving and Face It can offer these guys in need of help when traditional therapy doesn’t do the trick. Are there any other things that you’ve discovered since starting this group?

Mark:

I think at their most intimate basic level, they provide a connection to other human beings. It’s not that therapist can’t provide a connection, but therapists are bound by different expectations and rules for reasons I fully understand. I mean, again, it’s not even an either/or. We do a program here where we pair a peer support group with therapy and have found that it’s tremendously valuable. These men are in this peer support group designed specifically for this program, seeing an individual therapist, and then they’re coming back to the peer group talking about these skills they’re getting. So many men walk into a therapist’s office, and they have no idea why they’re even there, let alone what in the world this therapist is talking about, because men are not socialized to that environment. But what do we provide? We provide a place where on Saturday at 11:00 at night when you’re desperate, you got a guy in your group you can connect with.

Patrick:

Almost like a sponsor.

Mark:

Exactly. It’s a connection. You talked about loneliness earlier. The world is full of lonely people, and if lonely people could find each other, maybe they won’t be quite so lonely. Because now they can go out for a walk or they can talk or they can have lunch. They can be together. 

Patrick:

Absolutely. Fear, shame, and stigma are the big words we hear and the big things that stands in the way of a lot of people dealing with their mental health. How in your view do you think we can work to dismantle these problems?

Mark:

When I’m trying to help anybody, I think there’s some reassurance that it’s good we’re talking about this stuff. It’s good we’re elevating the conversations, and this is why I value the work we do at Face It. We’re going to be here for you while you walk through this mess and afterward too. We have guys that still come to our groups who are clinically not depressed. I mean, they are in full remission. But they’ve developed a network of people. Whether this is personally trying to help a friend or family member, or it’s the work we do…I’ll be here. Even when you tell me really horrible things that you’ve been up to or whatever. I’ll be here.

I might ask you questions, but I’m not going to judge you. I’m not going to tell you how to get better. I’m going to ask those questions and I’m going to do my best to be supportive in this process, and I will not walk away from you. I think about my own experiences, and my assumption on so many different occasions was if people know who I really was, they’ll just jump ship and leave. Well, I have a few people in my life who know who I am and I can’t shake them. And those are the people you count on because you know they’ll be there even when things don’t seem perfect. 

Patrick: 

Absolutely. 

Mark: 

It’s nice to know there are people who will still walk with us and support us and teach us. I mean, I think about that therapist I had, and I wish I could see that guy. I haven’t been able to track him down. But I told him ugly things about who I am as I perceived them. He looked at me and would just keep saying, “I still think you’re a good guy. I still think there’s a lot here.” I mean, he just in four short sessions helped me see there was somebody. And it turns out there were a lot of somebody’s in my life. 

Patrick:

It’s so huge to know someone will be by your side. I’m sure you could list many, but has there been a moment in your work that was the most validating or powerful you’ve experienced through Face It?

Mark:

When you deal with your own sense of lack of self-esteem, some of these things you hear can be almost overwhelming. And you don’t love hearing them, although they’re amazing stories. But I bet you we’ve had 200 individuals or families say you’ve saved this person’s life. Not me, but I mean the organization. What’s more validating than a bunch of guys, 200 plus, who keep showing up for stuff? We have people who keep coming to group. We have these volunteers who run our groups. My wife said this to me not too long ago, she said, “Man, it’s incredible.” I mean, we have volunteers who have been running groups for years. 

Prior to COVID, we hadn’t lost one guy to suicide. And it’s not some magic formula we have here, it’s that friendship piece. We did lose two men during COVID, which I’m not happy about obviously. But I don’t know, it’s pretty validating to know you’ve created a place where that many people can connect. It’s the work you guys are doing as well. You don’t always see the outcome. But if you can take a step back and collectively look at the impact of all these connections, it’s pretty validating.

Patrick:

I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing more validating to me than to hear someone’s doing better and just knowing that I could help in whatever small or tiny way. I’m sure those families telling you that the work you’ve done is quite literally lifesaving is everything. It’s like you can see there’s objectively one person we’ve helped. They got something from this thing that we’ve built. 

Mark:

I’ve had a few conversations with some of the men’s adult children, and those are the ones I really do mean a lot. They’re fun to listen to because you get to hear about how dad was and now how dad is. I mean, that’s amazing to hear. We love a good redemption story because we’ve all made a lot of mistakes. And watching people be able to make that comeback…that’s quite something. 


If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) for help and support.

8 Comments

  • Mike Rosen says:

    Patrick/Mark-

    This is a fantastic interview. I can relate to the story, the feelings, the circumstances, the journey, the trajectories, the outcomes. Thank you for doing this work, it’s important and makes a difference.

    Mike

  • todd adams says:

    Job well done Patrick… yet again 🙂

  • James Spann says:

    I’m struggling with depression and anxiety & I always feel left out all the time and I don’t want to lose my partner from this I need help

    • pdmtzc says:

      Hi James,
      I appreciate your vulnerability my man. I’d love to talk and listen to you and be a soundboard/friend however I can. If you need to talk, you can text me at 6304642119 or send me an email at patrick@menliving.org. Just know despite what you’re brain may be telling you, you are enough and you are worthy of love and happiness. Please reach out if you’d like!

  • Francis Bekin says:

    My name is Francis Bekin, i have been living with social phobia since infant and am still struggling to get. Any help?

  • Thom Kanache says:

    My name is Thom Kanache, I have been fighting depression and I really need help, depression have affected my day to day life and sometimes I do have thoughts of taking my own life

  • Ferg says:

    Hi

    Do ye guys have any zoom meetings? I can only find zoom meetings for addiction but none for mental health related things..

  • Peter says:

    do you offer student placements

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