St. Paul educator turns experience of depression into teaching moment

Al Levin, host of The Depression Files podcast, sits for a portrait.
Al Levin, host of The Depression Files podcast and assistant principal at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus, sits for a portrait in his basement studio in Minneapolis' Longfellow Neighborhood on July 6, 2018.
Lacey Young | MPR News

Al Levin's struggle with depression began with a promotion in 2010.

Levin moved from an assistant principal job to principal at St. Paul's Riverview elementary school. The move brought a lot of new responsibility. At the same time, he had four children at home, including two newborns.

"I rarely saw my kids. I was up and out of the house before anybody was awake, and I was home for sure after dinner and many times after bedtime," Levin said. "I ended up having a bout of depression that first year as a principal."

Now, Levin is speaking out about that experience with a blog and a podcast in an effort to reduce stigma around mental illness. He's particularly focused on two groups he believes face unique mental health challenges — men and educators.

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Levin said he recovered from his first episode of depression after seeing a doctor and getting therapy. Later, he chose to take a step back to an assistant principal position at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school. But he soon faced an even more serious recurrence.

"I started having some suicidal thoughts, in addition to a lot of severe symptoms such as crying bouts. I couldn't eat. I lost about 50 pounds," he said.

Through it all he struggled with shame about his depression. He didn't tell more than a few close friends and family, even when he had to take time off work to recover.

"I didn't even want to go out of the house to go to Target, because I knew I'd bump into somebody I knew," he said. "How would I explain to them that I'm out shopping but I can't be at work?"

The experience pushed him to speak out. Levin said he hasn't experienced depression since 2013 and has been sharing his struggle through his writing and public appearances. His podcast, "The Depression Files," is an interview show focused on men's experiences with the condition.

Levin has also turned to his workplace, where he said the mental health needs of teachers and school staff deserve more attention.

Al Levin, host of The Depression Files podcast, sits for a portrait.
Al Levin's podcast airs every other Sunday, each of which includes a discussion between Levin and a guest.
Lacey Young | MPR News

"Our educators are dealing with students who are going in and out of complex trauma on a daily basis, and it impacts us," Levin said.

He recently published a survey asking educators about their experiences with depression. He hopes to use the results to advocate for more mental health support in school districts.

"We can do better. We can create a better system of support for our educators, because it's like the old-school analogy of the air masks on an airplane: You need to put your air mask on you before you put it on the kid," he said.