Leaders should not send the message that seeking support is weak
On Tuesday, I listened to an episode of Dax Shepard’s podcast “Armchair Expert.” His guest was chef David Chang, who founded the Momofuku restaurants. In his memoir, “Eat a Peach,” due out this fall, Chang opens up about his mental-health struggles and the obstacles he faced to getting help. He also did so in the interview I heard.
Chang told Shepard that as an adolescent he knew something was “not right” because of the thoughts going through his head. “I was just sad and had no explanation for it,” he said. But telling his parents that he needed to see a therapist was out of the question. “That doesn’t exist in an Asian-American household,” Chang said. “You just don’t do it. The remedy is stop crying, suck it up, toughen up.” Unable to seek treatment and medication from a psychiatrist, he began self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana.
At age 26, Chang finally sought professional help, turning not to family or friends, but to a doctor whose name he saw listed in New York Magazine’s “Best Of” issue. The first therapist he called wasn’t a good fit, but he found another one online who was. Chang has been seeing him ever since.
Now in his early-40’s, Chang is culinary rock star. In March, The New York Times called him a “food-world icon.” He’s opened more than a dozen restaurants around the world and hosts a Netflix documentary series as well as a hit podcast of his own. Chang credits therapy and medication for getting him to a place where he felt he had “a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” and, in time, a sense of purpose and direction. “That was the beginning,” Chang told Shepard, “when my life started to change.”
Shepard noted the fallacy in equating seeking help with weakness, telling Chang: “It empowered you to be effective and productive and creative. Not asking for help would’ve actually defeated all those things in you. The real weakness would’ve been to not explore it.”
Chang had been so thoroughly conditioned to believe that needing support for mental-health issues should be a deep source of shame that for the first year he was in therapy he was often too embarrassed to speak in session, and certainly too embarrassed to tell anyone he was seeing a psychiatrist. “And here I am telling the world,” he said. “It’s funny how it all plays out.”
He then wondered what his son, who turned one in March, would feel if he ever needed to ask for help for depression. And I wondered what young male Trump supporters would feel if they ever did.
From the start of this pandemic, the President has broadcast a very clear message: Real men don’t wear masks. The subtext of that message is the same as what Chang’s parents drilled into him as a boy: asking for help or even admitting that you need it — from a therapist or a face covering — is weak. It undermines your masculinity. It means you’re a pansy or the other p-word. (Of course, this message from parents and the President is also going out to females, but I want to focus on the effect on males.)
In April, when asked if he was planning to wear a mask during the pandemic, Trump said, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it… Somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk, I think wearing a face mask as I greet Presidents, Prime Ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself.” Translation: Never mind that I might be protecting the lives of those Presidents and Prime Ministers, it’s just not my style, man. And, of course, it’s all about me.
On May 5th, Trump found an even better way to express his disregard and disrespect for others when he toured a plant in Phoenix that manufactures N95 masks and did not wear a mask, despite guidelines saying masks should be worn inside the factory at all times.
The previous week Vice President Pence, chairman of the White House coronavirus task force, refused to wear a mask on a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where he was given a tour and spoke with doctors and scientists working to combat Covid-19.
Asked why he did not wear a mask despite being informed prior to his visit of the clinic’s policy that every visitor must one, Pence told reporters he could go without the mask because he is tested regularly for the virus: “And since I don’t have the coronavirus, I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say ‘thank you.’”
Anyone who’s worn a mask knows that it neither prevents you from speaking to other people nor covers your eyes. And the best way to thank health care workers is to at least give the appearance that you don’t want to risk infecting them with the virus they’re working so hard to eradicate by not breathing on them with your unmasked face.
On May 8th, Pence boarded Air Force Two for a trip to Iowa, where he’d asked executives to join him for a food-supply roundtable. Pence’s flight was delayed on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base for about an hour after he learned that his spokesperson, Katie Miller, wife of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, had tested positive for Covid-19. Miller was not on the plane, but, according to Axios, out of what a senior administration official called “an abundance of caution,” six aides who had been in recent contact with Miller were asked to deplane, and remained in Washington. But Pence pressed on.
In a video first posted by The Intercept and streamed by the Des Moines Register, executives at the Iowa food-supply meeting are seen removing their face coverings after an administration staffer emerged from backstage and went around the table speaking to each attendee. A few minutes later, Pence joined the group sans mask. (Google the video. It’s a jaw-dropper.)
Let’s rewind: On his plane, Pence learns that his spokesperson has Covid-19. Concern is so high that a half-dozen people get off the plane and stay behind. Pence not only continues to travel and go maskless, but has a staff member ask the people meeting with him to remove the masks they’re voluntary wearing.
A source familiar with the roundtable event told CNN that the staffer had “politely informed everyone that because they were six feet apart, if they’d like, they could remove their mask.”
Okay, but that’s sort of like Michael Corleone politely informing you that you can pay what you owe him…if you like.
Let’s say you’re a boy or young man in high school, like David Chang was, and you’re watching the President and Vice President give a giant middle finger to masks every chance they get. It’s just a constant drumbeat of: You know who covers their face during a global pandemic? Not me. Those things are for wusses. Now, let’s say you suffer from depression, as Chang does. If masks are for wusses, therapy must be for total losers, right? So forget that. Pass the vodka. Know what? Gimme that bottle of oxy. I promise I’ll only take one.
Not every young man in this country is going to have the courage and fortitude that Chang did to push past the beliefs that had been engrained in him by the most powerful influences in his life and seek help after years of suffering in silence. Many will keep right on suffering, struggling all alone, desperately needing therapy, but too ashamed to seek it because that’s girl stuff, and they need to man-up the way President Trump does. So what if they can’t shake their unrelenting sorrow or desire to commit suicide? At least they’re not some candy-ass who has to see a shrink.
At the end of each and every one of his daily briefings, Governor Cuomo uses the phrase “New York Tough.” But he doesn’t define tough as thuggish or give the impression it’s cool to flip off Fauci or facts. Sure, tough is determined and resilient and strong. But Cuomo goes out of his way to say that tough is also smart, united, disciplined, and loving. He isn’t afraid to talk about the emotional toll this awful period has taken on him, and doesn’t stigmatize or bully or ridicule those who feel it, too. He encourages them to get help and provides avenues for them to do so.
Most important, Cuomo doesn’t think he’s more important than anyone else. He doesn’t think of himself as exceptional or above the rest. Whatever he calls on others to do, he pledges to do himself. During his May 7th briefing, he put it this way: “It’s too easy to say, ‘Okay, you can go do this, but I’m going to protect myself, and I’m going to stay behind the glass wall.’ No. If all human life has the same value, if I say something is safe for New Yorkers, then I will participate in it, because if it’s safe for you, it’s safe for me, right? That should be our standard, going forward.”
On May 10th, Trump once again asserted his belief that the rules don’t apply to him. David Bernhardt, the U.S. secretary of the interior, made a special exemption to federal regulations to allow the President to hold a Fox News virtual town hall at the Lincoln Memorial. Federal law typically prohibits congregations inside the landmark, but Bernhardt issued a directive that enabled the President to use the hallowed space.
At one point during the event, Trump compared his treatment as President to that of Lincoln, who was shot in the back of the head. “I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no President has ever seen,” Trump said. “They always said nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse.”
If Trump refuses to wear a mask to fight off a highly contagious deadly virus maybe he’d consider a flak jacket to protect himself from the mean, mean media. Or at least stop sending the message to young males that all you need to get through a rough patch is machismo. Screw help. Don’t be soft. Don’t be a sissy. And whatever you do, never admit that anyone else knows more than you do. Whether it’s a pandemic or depression, the message is the same.
On the podcast, Shepard asked David Chang how he manages the explosive growth of his restaurant business. “We’re blessed to have some of the best and brightest people,” he said. “All these cooks are so good. They’re just better than I am. That’s what I’ve learned… Hire people who are smarter than me and put them in positions to succeed.”
A leader expresses humility and gratitude, doesn’t put others down or blame them for his mistakes, doesn’t shun support or advice, doesn’t mask the fact that he needs help sometimes — and now finds himself at the top of his profession. How’s that for a concept?