Western New York organizations like Crisis Services and the Suicide Prevention Coalition have launched a campaign that encourages men to speak up about their mental health. The campaign titled “Be A Man” features several local men sharing their stories of living with mental illness. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with writer and former radio newsman Steve Cichon, who is one of the people who shared his story dealing with anxiety and depression. They discuss toxic masculinity, how to ask for help and more.
So first off, let's talk about the project itself and what's happening with crisis services and this PSA.What is it exactly?
Steve Cichon: I'm more or less just a participant. Just a cog in this larger piece. I didn't have a lot to do with planning it. But it sort of plays into something that very important to me. And really, it's just talking about mental illness. It's being transparent with something that more and more people are suffering from and don't know how to talk about and are afraid to talk about. And I mean, I know that because I was that guy until I just got so angry at some of the misinformation. The way that that people thought that they understood what was going on inside of somebody else's head when they clearly didn't. So just talking about it, starting trying to start conversations for people getting shining light in the darkness is really what, for me why I'm involved with it every time you can turn on a light and bring a little more light to a corner that's dark. You're doing something, you're helping somebody. That’s why I'm involved.
I know one of the big key components is talking about toxic masculinity. And you mentioned this was a little frustrating for you at times when addressing these issues at first. Can you go into a little bit more detail about that?
SC: You know, I'm a pretty emotional guy. Super Bowl commercials make me cry. Watch those 30 second commercials and the tears (start) forming in the corners of my eyes. So when I read the newspaper and just see the numbers of young people who have died suddenly, or they actually go into detail and you see their friends post these things on social media and they don't have any idea what happened and they wish that they could have known or they wish done more than that, you can't necessarily help that person. There's nothing. There's no life preserver you can throw that person, but the thing that you can do for everybody is just be kind, is just be nice, is just give people room. And it's something that takes practice, especially when we're surrounded by so much toxicity, not even necessarily toxic masculinity, just toxicity. Open up Facebook and Twitter and it's just people being angry and having to top each other's anger and just being nice, for me, that's what this is about. It’s not just allowing people to see around them somebody you know.
SC: I know a lot of people who work here at WBFO. I just talked to five people out in the hallway who I've known for 20 years and (previously) none of them had any idea that I was suffering from depression and anxiety. Through the 20 years where I've known them very well and we've been very close. Why did they not know? A combination of maybe some kind of shame on my part, not knowing how to deal with that. Not wanting to put out into the world this notion that something about me was broken. Wondering how people would react to that idea. The same thing that I think anybody would have with anything that they perceive as a weakness in themselves that they don't want to broadcast it. By broadcasting it, you're putting your weakness, if that's what it is out there, and just start dealing with it. And it’s just sort of one day at a time.
Why before did you not feel comfortable talking about it with peers and coworkers?
SC: I think part of it is understanding what's going on inside of you. In this instance, understanding what's going on inside of your head. It's difficult to talk about something that doesn't have a name. I have a huge South Buffalo family and depression and anxiety and just about any diagnosable mental illness is prevalent in my family. I can point to the person who suffers from it. So to me, it almost seemed kind of normal. Like okay, I'm just like aunt so and so or I'm just like cousin blank where I'm just like uncle or my grandpa or whatever. So we never talked about it as a family and I don't think that's unusual for any family. It's the same way cancer was 50 years ago. He didn't talk about cancer people just disappeared and died from it. But once you have the tools and the ability to know what it is you're talking about, you have a word that you can say what this thing is-- and I can almost, I can't tell you the date, but I can tell you the day, when I figured out okay, boy, this has been going on for 30 years. And now I know what this is.
SC: After I felt like my brain was falling out of my ear one day, having a panic attack, having lived with constant anxiety, and not even realizing that I was suffering from constant anxiety, but being on a nine on the anxiety scale and all of a sudden having that cranked up to a 17 one day, and literally thinking I was dying. And doing what everybody does type it into old Web MD to see what's going on. And like wow, that was a panic attack. Okay, boy, I need to figure out how to start getting some help. And that was a seven or eight year journey from there. In order to get to a spot where I was sitting in front of somebody who was able to help me get through it. And even from there was another year before I talked about it. What made me want to talk about it was, well, Robin Williams’ suicide shook me. I was a radio news person when Robin Williams died. And I was there all day, we found out that he had passed away and then we found out that it was probably a suicide. Then we found out some more of the things that that went into it. And that really shook me, knowing at this point what I knew about myself. (It) helped me along on my journey to get to a point where I was able to talk about it.
SC: I was a radio news person when Anthony Bourdain died. And I was a news guy on a morning show with people having happy talk. They were doing happy talk but talking about Anthony Bourdain, and neither one of them had any idea what was going on in his head. And it just it made me mad. Not mad at them. They just had no idea. And at that point right then and there, I realized, if they don't know that the guy sitting 10 feet away from them is having the same sorts of issues that Anthony Bourdain did. Who was going to tell them about that? Well, I guess that's got to be me. And I sat and wrote a very long blog post piece on just what's going on in my life. And that was a very freeing moment when you hit send on something like that. Very graphic and very detailed. You don't know what's going to happen. You have no idea. Did I just ruin my life? Did I just tell everybody this thing that was going on? The response was resoundingly amazing. Support from friends. People that I hadn't talked to in years calling and going, this is amazing what you did. People I hadn't talked to in years going, I got the same thing going on. I'm really glad to know that I'm not alone. I'll be honest, there were a couple of friends who said how dare you have this thing going on? And not tell me? Which is kind of a weird response. And those people aren't necessarily my friends anymore.
SC: I don't know. Your original question was, why didn't I talk about it? I think it had to be the right instance. It had to be the right spot. And just sitting there and having read to read this news of somebody having taken his own life. And having two people who I considered friends, not having any idea and just having all the wrong notions about this. And me having the facility to sit there and bang it out with my thumbs on my iPhone, my thoughts and feelings about it. And realizing that, you know that there are a lot of people who are suffering from kind of the same thing, to varying degrees. The loneliness of it all is terrifying. And to not be so lonely because somebody has written down the same feelings that you have to be able to provide that to people is a gift to me to be able to do that for people.
You can read 'A brief memoir in depression and anxiety' by Cichon here.
One of the things which you mentioned, perceived weakness before. If there's a perceived weakness to be open about having feelings. When you talk about toxic masculinity, it's the idea that, ‘Oh, well you cry Super Bowl commercials. That's a weakness. You cry during movies, right? Suck it up. It's not okay to show your emotions like that.’ But you're openly like, ‘Hey, this is okay. I'm an emotional person and that's fine.’
At times you didn't feel comfortable talking about some of these issues, but is it fair to say you've always been an emotional person?
SC: Sure. I would say so.
Have you felt throughout your life there were times where you weren't able to be around certain people or groups of people where you couldn't be that emotional person? You felt like they would be negative towards you potentially crying at a Super Bowl commercial or having those kind of moments to be able to emotionally share yourself with your environment?
SC: Yeah. I teach boys at an all-boys is high school now. I am just as likely to bust their chops for crying at a Super Bowl commercial. Maybe I am part of the toxic masculinity problem (he laughs).
SC: Maybe this is me taking it to the ‘nth’ degree. If I am with a group of guys and they see me crying at a Super Bowl commercial, I fully expect them to hammer me on it. When I wear pink pants to school, and I have. They’re salmon, but let's be honest, they're pink. When I wear pink pants to school, I will mock myself before someone else has the chance to say something about it. A lot of those tricks are the same thing that come into dealing with having these feelings. Having these emotions. Having this mental illness. People who are very close to me had no idea because I was good at masking it or good at being able to flip the switch.
SC: We talk a lot about chirping at school. I'm on the school climate committee. I'm on the anti-bullying committee. I'm on all these things. We talk a lot about chirping that is just the way of life at an all boys school you put 200 teenage boys together in a building and they're just going to--- know, it's just a constant. Everybody is going to be whatever it is. And people expect it. I just said this last week to my class. I think chirping is okay. I think it's okay to say to somebody, what are you crying at the Super Bowl? What's the matter with you? I think what matters most is what's in your heart when you're chirping. We're friends. I can chirp you all day and I hope you understand that I'm doing what I love because I love you, brother. And I'm not afraid to tell you that I love you brother. Right? But when somebody else walks in and I'm saying the same thing, but I'm not chirping them out of kindness.
SC: I see less of that today probably than I did when I was in I'm 42 years old. I think we're in a better place now. When I was watching the Bills’ Super Bowls, I don't know if it would have been okay for me to react emotionally to a commercial during the game. Now, I might get chip for it, but I don't think it's unacceptable or at least as unacceptable as it would have been years ago. I think we've progressed in that. Then I can come out and say, I suffer from anxiety and depression. I talked about that with my students too. I think that's a huge step and, and an essential step. To be a man 50 years ago or 60 years ago, to go and work in an awful job, work at the plant. And work in a job where you're risking your life every day, and you're going to provide for your family. You're going to come home. You're going to read the paper and leave me alone. And maybe you're going to drink too. Alleviate some of that stress. Maybe you're going to gamble to alleviate some of the stress. There’s probably some stress reliever involved. Because for damn sure you're not going to cry. You're not going to show any weakness. But a huge number of them didn't make it out. They died of alcoholism or they had a heart attack at the age of 52. Or, you know, whatever that the case is. There’s always room for improvement, but I think we've made leaps and bounds of improvement over the decades.
You can look at one side where somebody says, well any kind of chirping to that extent, it's going to lead to some bad behaviors or open the door to some things getting out of hand. But there's another side to that. And you mentioned it. You’re looking at a history where you may be the son of somebody who wasn't as open to talking about things and was raised in that type of environment. It’s part of a history that comes with developed habits. In the meanwhile, you are also learning and recognizing how to be more open with yourself and others.
It leads into a larger talking point. When we talk about making ourselves vulnerable in those kind of positions, it goes back to that weakness idea. The idea femininity is negative or a weakness. You talking about the salmon pants that are pink. It's that association. That kind of mindset can potentially lead to some those other problems. It could be unhealthy, right?
SC: Yeah. You know, it's just difficult to wrap my mind around just because it's so absurd. I don't go into my closet and go, I'm feeling a bit feminine today. I think I'm going to grab the salmon pants. I don't. I think they're sharp looking. I like them. Honestly. You know, as a ‘manly man’ the ladies like when I wear the pink pants (laughing).
SC: So to me, the whole that whole notion is absurd. And you know, even showing feelings being labeled a sign of femininity, to me it's just absurd. We have the right to say anything in America. You could say whatever you want but there are always consequences to the free speech. I remember kind of struggling with a friend whose wife passed away in a work environment. This is maybe 15 years ago and saying to that guy who clearly needed a friend-- I love you, buddy. I do. I love you. To look into a man's eye and say that is probably the first time that I have ever done it. It made sense to me. It wasn't-- how will this be perceived by the outside world? Maybe that's what the whole discussion of toxic masculinity is. But I have since said that dozens of times, hundreds of times and never had a problem with it. I've never had somebody go, ‘what you love me? (in macho voice)’ I've never had that that happened.
SC: For me in my head in my space, it's just so absurd. I think that's where something like what we're doing with this public service announcement becomes very powerful. I had that conversation with myself in order to be able to say to my friend, I love you buddy. And it's just absurd that you would have to think about that or I would want to, but once I did, the floodgates were open. Maybe more people will have a conversation with themselves about saying it's okay to get help. I have to imagine that a lot of people my age, our age, post-baby boomer folks-- clearly feel that that this is an okay thing to do. It's just that we don't have the skills or the ability to do it. How do you eliminate toxic masculinity? Start being a less toxic guy. And it's really that simple. And all of a sudden, you see it start to melt away.
Where do you think you would be if you didn’t seek help?
SC: Bad things grow in darkness, mental illness grows in darkness. I probably wouldn't be sitting here. If I would have figured out how to talk to a therapist 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, I wouldn't be sitting here. Things just fester in that darkness. Your brain can be a dark place. My brain was a dark place for a very long time. It’s a lot lighter now. And you need to bring other people in. You need to be able to say, even if you're not saying I don't feel so hot, something ain't right with the way I'm thinking. Even if you're not saying that, just to see that other people are kind of in the same area and you happen to go to your health care website if you’re lucky enough to have health care and you look up the name of a therapist and you click that button. All right, you know, that wasn't too hard. Now I'll go and talk to this person. If this conversation helps that to happen, then that's just amazing. Like, why isn't there a line of 20 people in here waiting to talk to you to tell this story? It's not comfortable. I don't want to be known as the crazy guy, the guy is going to come in and talk to you about his mental health problems. But that's not what I'm known as. I'm still known as everything else. But now I have this other extra thing that I talk about that really, really, really helps people.
To those people who may be in an environment where they're not sure they can be open with how they feel, what would your advice be to them?
SC: Especially if it has changed for you, the way that you receive somebody saying something different hits you harder lately. I can say from my personal experience, there was a bit of a downhill. If you're looking around yourself and things that didn't bug you a week ago are all of a sudden bugging you, then you know, there's probably something going on inside of your head that you really have very little control over. And you know, if not, talk to a friend. There's a phone number and crisis services calls it a suicide hotline or at least they did for a long time. It is a suicide hotline, but it's also a-- hey you know what? My brain isn’t working so good. Can we talk for a second? And they do and they talk to you and they help get you in a better place. And hopefully, from there, you figure out at some point, you finally make a call where you can get the mental help that you need from your doctor, from a social worker, from somebody who's really going to help. And it's a lot of work. And it's something you deal with for the rest of your life.
SC: I always kind of envisioned that going and talking to a therapist would be like having a broken arm. I had a broken wrist once. I'm going to go get my wrist reset and it's going to be in a cast for three months. I'm going to walk out and my wrist is going to be pretty much be okay. It's not that. It's more like, ‘Well, sir, your wrist didn't heal exactly the way that it used to be. So you're going to have to figure out how to continue your life with maybe a limited mobility in your wrist.’ That's something that's terrible, but it's something that you deal with every day. I would say do whatever it takes if you feel it. Especially if you notice a change in yourself. Reach out to somebody if you don't have a friend that you can reach out to make a phone call. If you don't want to make a phone call, go to a website. There are enough resources now that you can get on the right path. So use them. It's easier said than done. I think that's the thing that made me the most angry, which forced me into writing that missive that I wrote a couple of years ago, was people saying, ‘Gosh. Why didn't he just get help?’ It’s not that easy. There's so many different things that go into it. But man the alternative is pretty dark. So figure out a place where you can where you can go get some help.
You went and got help and it doesn't sound like you were judged too harshly for the most part it sounds like.
SC: My dad was a diabetic. And we all knew that if dad started acting a little loopy, that he probably needed some sugar. He didn't take his insulin properly. And that happened a lot with my dad. But it was important to know that because if we didn't know that, it could lead to really bad things. I'm glad that the people around me know that. That I suffer from anxiety and depression and if they see something that isn't quite right, they can say something to me or try and help me get on the right track. Or say something to my wife or just be concerned and know exactly what's going on. For me it was a very difficult thing to admit. Not just that I need help and I need to go to a therapist, but I need help from my community. I need everybody like, ‘Hey, everybody, keep your eye out for me, would you?’ For me, that was a difficult thing to do. And it may or may not be difficult for other people, but it's just essential.
The PSA "Be A Man" can be found here.