Dr. Ardeshir Mehran

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The “Marlboro Man” is still killing us. This time it’s not our lungs, but our minds.

Two points. First, the superhero image and our desire to be perfect and happy all the time make us feel like failures. Superheroes are unachievable fun fantasies. They are perfect; we are not.

Second, depression, anxiety, and a sense of loneliness are natural emotions that occur in all of us, the real daily heroes, in various points of our lives. For daily heroes these feelings can last a week, months, or years. The real people heroes often work their way through these emotions. Fictional superheroes never have to.

The recent suicides of noted celebrities made me think of superheroes and a conversation with a colleague last year. In one of our meetings he shared: “When I was in my mid-twenties, right before I got my MBA, I began journaling dreams for my future ahead. I have always wanted to live a life like the Marlboro Man. Strong, invincible, independent, and forever young…like a rock.” He then took out a black & white picture of a Marlboro Man ad from a manila folder with faded edges and showed it to me. He continued with much sadness in his voice, “These days I look at this picture, and I look at myself in the mirror. I see years gone by, my gray hair, mixed career success. Healthy but not strong. My dream of living a life like a Marlboro Man is…” His voice trailed off.

I felt heavy with emotions. My colleague and I are sitting on a park bench in a park in Palo Alto, sipping coffee. He has been an executive with a mid-size company and was laid off recently; a lack of fit with the CEO. He is going through a period of depression and anxiety.

In reality, I saw him as strong, talented, and with all the right qualities for a vibrant life. I wanted to yank him away from the hold of the Marlboro Man vision, and ­­help him feel more positive about his future outlook.

His story of the Marlboro Man touched me, and I think of it often. We all have visions of the life we yearn to live and have our own personal heroes and heroines. A number of my female colleagues have posters of Wonder Woman hanging in their offices. They also aspire to live a life of great energy, strength, accolades; having it all.

I feel that too many of us struggle to appear super human. There is a chasm between our imperfections and our dreams with images of Marlboro Man and Wonder Woman hovering in the horizon. Never reachable.

The recent heartbreaking loss of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and also remembering Robin Williams, brings back the images of the Marlboro Man. I saw these individuals as larger-than-life. Their loss…says something about our society. We saw them as superheroes. Privately, they were dealing with the same emotional torments as the rest of us; imperfect humans.

In a remarkable book on depression, The Lost Connections, the author Johann Hari argues that depression and anxiety are not caused by a disease of the mind or brain chemical imbalance. In his view, depression and anxiety are about frayed connections, lost life meaning, diminished hopes, and broken hearts. It is about one’s ideal vision of self being shattered, feeling extreme despair, and backing away from life.

The essential first step to change is to reduce the “stigma” of mental illness, so that no one is left to suffer in silence. It is through the acceptance of these debilitating emotions of “real” human heroes that we will heal ourselves.

We need new scripts for role models; less bravado, invincibility, or perfection. More humility, love, compassion, and vulnerability.

Let’s start by saying farewell to the icons of Marlboro Man and Wonder Woman in our lives, workplaces, and schools; they belong to faded manila folders and storybooks. They reinforce the the fallacy of perfection,; that feeling unwell, depressed, or anxious means that we are weak, unreliable, or uncommitted.

Let’s make this change happen faster.

Let’s help bring those grappling with mental illness out of the shadows.

They need us.

AND WE NEED THEM.