As more men avoid mental health discussions, one metro man shares battle with depression

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INDEPENDENCE, Mo. – More and more studies are showing that men are avoiding talking about their mental health, and that’s a problem, according to psychiatrists.

Data from the National Alliance on Mental Health shows 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness in any given year. But less than half of them get services that could help them.

Dwight Sponagel has battled with depression since his early teens. The 46-year-old didn’t realize he had a mental health illness until he was 30.

“I could recognize the good in my life, but I felt like I was the problem,” Sponagel said. “I felt like I was making life terrible and getting in the way of the success and happiness of everyone I knew.”

He compared living with depression to running in a pool with water up his neck.

“It’s a constant all-encompassing barrier to you getting to where you need to go,” he said. “It’s something that gets in the way of normal sensations and normal feelings.”

Sponagel tried to manage his depression, but it became too much for him two years ago. That's when he told a trusted co-worker that he was planning to take his life.

“I got in her car and said, ‘Hey, I just want you to know I’m going to die on Saturday,’" Sponagel said. “This was a Tuesday. She started the car, didn’t say a word and drove me to the hospital.”

Dwight Sponagel

Sponagel said his co-worker saved his life, but he admits speaking up wasn’t easy.

“There were people, but I didn’t know what to talk about,” he said. “It’s hard to come out looking weak for a guy, very hard.”

A survey conducted by Berland Strategy shows 49 percent of men feel more depressed than they’re willing to admit. Forty-five percent believe they could solve their own mental health issues.

“We really need to normalize the idea of getting help, and part of that is by offering it continually,” said Shayla Sullivant, a psychiatrist at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

She said identifying depression or any mental illness at a young age leads to early intervention.

“This is a hard topic to discuss, but we fell like just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s something we should shy away from,” Sullivant said.

Children’s Mercy is one of the first hospitals in the nation to work suicide screenings into their routine care. Patients visiting the hospital’s general medical clinics are asked five questions meant to help identify if a person is at risk of harming themselves.

“It’s much better to lean into that discomfort and ask these important questions in advance so we have time to do some of the prevention work,” Sullivant said.

Sullivant said 94 percent of parents believe the screenings, which are gradually being rolled out across the hospital, are a good idea.

Sponagel loves the idea of earlier suicide screenings. He never had the opportunity to share his struggles with a psychiatrist as a teen, but his near-suicide attempt was a turning point.

“I started researching, you know, there’s got to be something that’s not just -- I mean anti-depressants are great, but there’s got to be some other way we can try to treat this,” Sponagel said.

He found John A. Francis, a psychiatrist who specializes in a treatment known as transcranial magnetic stimulation.

“The TMS is affecting a very small area of the brain, so we’re precisely finding the treatment spot, refining it and analyze how the patient is doing while they’re undergoing treatment,” Francis said.

“It’s like a tapping on the side of my head,” Sponagel said as he underwent treatment.

The noninvasive treatment, approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 2008, is typically used when other depression treatments are not effective; the treatment can be as quick as 17 and a half minutes and works best when done consecutively over a period of time.

“My whole life changed,” Sponagel said. “I stopped having suicidal thoughts halfway through treatment. That’s what this treatment has done for me.”

Sponagel’s journey hasn’t been easy, but the father of two said he now understands that life is worth living.

“I try to say, ‘You are not what’s wrong with this world,’” he said. “You are not the problem. You have a contribution to make, but you’ve got to be around to do it and that’s what I finally had to be convinced of.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, we urge you to get help immediately.

Go to a hospital, call 911 or call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).

Click on the boxes below for our FOX 4 You Matter reports and other helpful phone numbers and resources.


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