His own man
Ian Vincent admits he wasn’t a super-focused or driven student when he first came to Western in 2011.
In fact, it was just the opposite.
After stints at two community colleges and the Art Institute of Seattle, Vincent moved into Nash Hall with an idea to do some scholarship around comparative religions. But he really just planned to sort of wing it and see how things panned out.
At 21, he almost immediately became a kind of “big brother” to the younger men who lived on his floor, many of whom were away from home for the first time.
“Our floor got very close, very quickly, and remained that way. We all sort of latched onto each other,” he says.
Those first few months, even if Vincent still had not zeroed in on a field of study that wowed him, he had a core group of friends. He felt he was in the right place. Then, that spring, everything changed.
In April, as the first cherry blossoms were opening and campus was at last casting off the gray mantle of another long winter, one of his floor-mates took his own life, a tragedy that would prove to be just the first step down a long, dark road for Vincent.
How did he not know that his friend had gotten to this place? After all, he was the floor’s “big brother”—it was his job to know. What signs did he miss? What could he have done?
“I just kept asking myself these questions, over and over, but I had no answers,” Vincent says.
“I was just a wreck, we all were,” he says. “Nobody had an inkling that something like this was on his mind. Part of that was that we didn’t know what to look for; the other was that we probably wouldn’t have known what to say to him or to anyone else. For the most part, society doesn’t equip men to talk about things like that with other men—it’s a barrier most of us have real problems navigating.”
The following fall, Vincent came back to Western shaken but ready to try to move on. But that school year, he would suffer through the breakup of a longtime relationship, the natural deaths of three family members including his grandmother and grandfather, and in November, another friend took his own life, a former floor-mate from Nash who had left school the previous year.
Vincent was devastated.
“I kept thinking that I could just tough my way through it, but in reality, I was bottoming out. I was depressed. I was sure I had no future, and that was when I also began having suicidal ideation,” he says. “I felt rudderless.”
Finally, at absolute rock bottom after the death of his grandfather, Vincent reached out for help. After witnessing his grandfather’s death, Vincent was so on edge that he had panic attacks that triggered minor seizures and black-outs.
“I ended up talking with Brennan Gilbert, who was at the time coordinating Men’s Resiliency efforts at Western and is now an instructor in the Psychology Department, and I think he saved my life,” Vincent says. “He got me to see that I had spent all my energy trying to help other people, as a way of not needing to address my own needs and the fact that I needed help myself. And I finally sought out that help–professional help.”
One day he was driving back to Western and, like many people with depression and anxiety, he hadn’t been sleeping well. He dozed off at the wheel, and as the car’s tires left the road and rumbled onto the shoulder, Vincent awoke with a start.
“In that second or two I was asleep, I actually had been having a dream, and the only scene I can really remember was that of my friends crying, the same way we had all cried over our friends when they had taken their own lives,” he says. “When I woke up and had the car back under control, I knew, finally, that I didn‘t want to die after all.”
Slowly, Vincent began to pull himself out of the hole that had been dug for him.
“Brennan told me that although my experiences were unique, someone might relate to them and find hope,” he says. “That was huge, because it gave me purpose again.”
He also began volunteering with suicide prevention efforts on campus. “I began to feel like not only was I getting better, but that I was gaining insight into what I wanted to do with my life,” Vincent says.
Vincent also had a meeting with former WWU vice president Eileen Coughlin.
“Eileen just sat me down, and looked at me and said that whatever it was going to take to get me through this, that she was going to support me – that Western was going to support me. I can’t tell you how important that was, because that’s all I think I really needed – to feel supported,” he says.
Around this time, Vincent was interviewed for a story in the student-produced Klipsun Magazine in which he shared his previous suicidal ideation.
“Sadly, I didn’t realize how soon the article would be out, and my parents saw it before I could tell them that my depression had become so advanced,” he says. “They were pretty freaked out.”
His family had, in fact, noticed signs of his depression, he says. They were very concerned and had tried to talk to him about it. “The problem was that I felt ashamed of my feelings, began to isolate myself, and acted out,” he says. “I think society has a misperception that when someone is struggling, they will simply step forward. For me, it was hard to admit when I was struggling because I didn’t want to burden others with my struggles.”
Vincent’s reticence to share his real feelings with the people he loved most illustrates why there’s a growing field of mental health devoted to men’s resilience. Cultural expectations that men be independent and self-reliant can actually undermine their mental health. Study after study shows that men of all ages and ethnicities are less likely than women to seek mental health services. Meanwhile, men die by suicide at more than 3 ½ times the rate of women.
Vincent began analyzing how he had communicated with other men—from his father to his friends to his floor-mates in Nash. He knew that if he had had healthier relationships that broke down these barriers of communication, he would have fared so much better through those incredibly tough times.
“Working in the mental health field has taught me that if we are observing signs of depression, we need to address those behaviors in a way that does not shame the person. Addressing the behavior, supporting the individual, validating their emotions, and referring them to professional services is a helpful way to support someone we are concerned about,” he says.
“We need to reach out and do better, which is a huge part of what I do now. And maybe the hardest lesson to learn through all that was that suicide is preventable, and I have a role in that,” he says.
The Helping Hand
Almost a year after graduating in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in religion and culture, Vincent became the Men’s Resiliency specialist in Western’s Counseling Center. His role now is to connect students with each other, and with additional resources on campus when they need help.
Today, he gives presentations in residence halls where discussions often turn to depictions of men in films and other media—and how men of color are often portrayed as villainous, college-aged men are excessive partiers, trans men are rarely seen, overweight men are the comic relief, and characters that don’t fit the stereotypical male rarely play the lead. He loves watching young men become more confident in themselves as they reject the narrow definitions of ideal masculinity portrayed in media.
He also offers twice-monthly brownbag lunch discussions and works with student volunteers to help with Counseling Center events. And this year, Vincent brought to campus Keith Edwards, whose “Ending Rape” presentation illustrated how men can act to disrupt campus rape culture. “The typical student who comes into my office reminds me so much of myself five years ago. They have trouble forming authentic friendships, and I try to help them get past that,” he says.
“It’s interesting how many men use substances as the way of overcoming barriers and having authentic conversations,” he says. “We want to have dialogs like these that don’t require substances to get started.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that about 23 percent of adult men report binge drinking five times a month, averaging eight drinks per binge.
Vincent says he is aware that men’s typical inability to talk about the things that bother them, combined with societal norms surrounding sexuality and “what it means to be a man”—as if there’s only one way to be a man—often undermine the work he is trying to do to get Western’s young men to be authentic about how they feel.
As an example, Vincent often refers to the 2015 documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” about how abiding by society’s stereotypical, hyper-masculine expectations for young men—powerful, protective, strong, emotionally in control, heterosexual—can overwhelm them and lead them to the very place Vincent struggles to keep them from.
“Society has determined what being a man needs to look, act and sound like, and that prototypical male—or a young man striving to fit himself into that image—is often who I end up working with. Just like I was when I was a student, they think they need to be strong and ‘just deal with it,’ when the reality is that mindset is one of the biggest things holding them back from healing,” he says.
When Vincent talks about masculinity, he prefers the term “masculinities,” plural: “You have your own unique experiences and your own definition of masculinity,” he says. “We try to encourage students to recognize they are good enough in their own definition of their identity and encourage them to feel comfortable and confident in expressing their identity.”
Authentic conversation by the water
Vincent works hard to figure out ways to break down the walls young men tend to build around themselves. For example, he co-hosts with the WWU Fly Fishing Club a student retreat called “Casting for Care,” where over the course of a daylong outing, they create a space in which young men have the ability to express their thoughts openly and authentically, in an endeavor to better understand what it means to be a happier man.
“I had a student tell me that he shared more over the past five hours of the retreat than he had over the past five years with his roommates. That’s what we are trying to get to—the place where being open and honest is the norm, where real conversations about the things around us that affect us take place as a matter of course, because that’s what being healthy is all about,” he says.
And Vincent is not done growing, either. This fall, he’ll leave campus to take on his next challenge: getting his master’s degree in Social Work at the University of Denver.
“Every day I pass my old residence hall to get to my office. The community I formed in that building as an undergraduate, along with the support from staff, is what encouraged me to pursue a career in mental health,” he says. “I am excited to watch the Men’s Resiliency program continue to grow under a new specialist.”
But first he’ll continue a tradition he started as a college student at Western, spending his summers as a commercial fisher in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
“Bristol Bay restores me. I need it,” he says. “But even there, with the guys on the boat, I’m trying out these conversations—pushing them to talk to me in ways that they aren’t necessarily used to. I guess it’s just who I am now,” he says.
“I just have to be myself,” he says. “Because getting here was a journey.”
A version of this story previously ran in Western Today.
Video by Suzanne Blais and Rhys Logan, '11