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ManTherapy: Confronting Suicide With a Little Manly Humor

January 23, 2014
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ManTherapy: Confronting Suicide With a Little Manly Humor
A screen grab of the website mantherapy.org, a humorous guide to handling depression for men. Screen grab via mantherapy.org
To curb the high rates of suicide among men in Colorado, state officials are using a humorous, manly-man website to get men to open up and seek the mental health help they need.

The poster on the door to the office of Colorado’s suicide prevention chief reads, “Give your mind the same attention you give your penis.”

For most men, that’s a lot of attention.

For Jarrod Hindman, it could be the answer to a serious problem that has for years nagged Colorado and many western states, where mental health services are scarce: What’s the best way to help suicidal men get the mental health care they need? Hindman is hoping the key lies in something almost never associated with suicide — jokes

Hindman took over the state’s suicide prevention office in 2006. He noticed that it wasn’t spending much time, money or marketing on the problem of men and suicide. And yet the statistics were troubling: Men are nearly four times as likely to commit suicide as women. In 2009, men made up 79 percent of the nearly 40,000 people who died by suicide in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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In Colorado especially — along with the rest of the so-called “Suicide Belt” of the American West — the problem of suicide is dire. In 2012, the rate reached an all-time high of 19.7 suicides per 100,000 people in Colorado, a nearly 16 percent increase over the year before, according to the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. Compare that with the rate for the U.S. overall: 12.4 suicides per 100,000 people. Among men in Colorado, the rate was higher still, at 30.62 suicides per 100,000 people.

Hindman was struck by another jarring statistic: Compared with women, men have far lower rates of depression, a major risk factor for suicide.

But that fact, he realized, didn’t mean fewer men than women were depressed. Data has repeatedly suggested that men are just as vulnerable as women to depression. So because fewer men were being diagnosed as depressed, it likely meant that they were not going to mental health professionals to get the diagnosis.

A few years later, Hindman met the founder of a marketing firm at a symposium. They arranged a meeting and hatched the idea for what would become “ManTherapy” — a website that brings therapy to men who wouldn’t seek it otherwise, and in the process, makes jokes about testicles.

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Go to the ManTherapy.org homepage and a video of a thickly mustached Dr. Rich Mahogany, man therapist (“not a real therapist”), greets you with one of a few random greetings. “Did you know that men have feelings too?” he might say. “No, not just the hippies.”

Dr. Mahogany addresses visitors from a wood-paneled office befitting Ron Swanson, complete with a moosehead on the wall and a sign for a music group called Richard and the Balls. On the site, there’s a primer on depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, titled Gentlemental Health 101: Kryptonite for the Manliest of Male Minds, plus lots of resources to connect men with therapy (“Because contrary to popular belief, men can’t fix everything themselves”), support groups (“You don’t need to go it alone, cowboy”) and the like.

ManTherapy.org ran into some opposition at first. For obvious reasons, suicide is a sensitive subject, and it’s not easy to joke about it. Some of the mental health professionals partnering with the state bristled, worried that the site would steer men away from their services. If even more depressed men went without treatment, it could lead to more suicide, they said, and increase the rate of other depression-related problems like weakened relationships, poor job performance, alcoholism, insomnia, heart disease and dementia.

The skeptics found that their fears were mostly unfounded. Since July 2012, when the website launched, 300,000 people have visited it. And some of the men who have been helped by the site have let the state know; hundreds of anonymous users have emailed positive comments, which Hindman shared with NationSwell. One visitor to ManTherapy wrote that “it was a safe place to me.” Another said that it “helps me see I’m not the only one going through my problems and I’m not less of a man for getting help and lets me know there is a life after this.”

Dr. Alan Berman, the director of the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C., says men are “socialized” to be strong rather than emotional, and not to seek help or admit they have a problem. “It’s a tremendous barrier to overcome,” he says.

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There won’t be a way to determine the true impact of ManTherapy on suicide rates until this year’s statistics are released in Colorado. But in a hopeful sign, other states are signing on. Wisconsin is working on a licensing agreement with Colorado’s suicide prevention office to bring the droll Dr. Mahogany to its state with specific resources added to the website for those residents. Talks are also ongoing with North and South Carolina, and a handful of western states like Arizona, New Mexico and California. Even Australia started its own national version of the site.

The western U.S. states carry a particularly heavy burden of suicide; their rates are far higher than that of the rest of the country. The reasons are complex and difficult to tease out precisely. But it doesn’t help that: a) mental health resources in rural areas are harder to come by; b) Western Americans have more of a frontier mentality about dealing with their own troubles; and c) there’s a deep-rooted gun culture in the region, increasing the potential for self-harm.

These were the factors that prompted Hindman to start ManTherapy — to bring mental health help right to the computer screen of John Wayne. Since the days when Hindman first began, things have changed quite a bit. Last year ManTherapy.org, which is funded in part by the nonprofit Carson J Spencer Foundation, was honored with a public health award for its innovation. And last July, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper sent Hindman a note to congratulate him. Underneath the typed text, the governor scribbled: “WAY TO GO and keep up the GREAT work!”

Hindman is pleased, but knows he has work to do. One of his intermediate goals is, counterintuitively, to see reported rates of male depression rise, particularly in the 25-to-54 age group targeted by ManTherapy. “That means that men are getting off their ass and going to see a professional,” he says.

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