Ep. 97 – Shawn Lesser Shares Crucial Wisdom

Shattering Silence: Shawn Lesser on Mental Health

Join us for this crucial conversation with Shawn Lesser, a seasoned finance professional and social entrepreneur who is also a mental health advocate and founder of THE REAL Mental Health Foundation. Shawn candidly shares his personal mental health journey and how he became a fierce advocate for mental health, with a particular focus on helping men. We also explore the existing stigma surrounding mental health and discuss strategies to combat it.

As you listen, I encourage you to think about someone who might also need to hear this message. Be ready to share this episode, as it could help to save someone’s life. 

The conversation with Shawn takes an intriguing turn as we uncover his personal story of depression. The importance of reaching out for help and having a support system in place when dealing with mental health issues are explored. As we move deeper into Shawn’s journey, we shed light on the warning signs of depression and mental health struggles such as isolation, change in eating habits, and lack of engagement when interacting with people.

As we move from story to application of wisdom, we discuss ways to support a friend who may be struggling, emphasizing the significance of checking in, engaging the person in activities, and building a community of understanding and empathy. Listen in, because checking on our friends and loved ones can be an incredibly powerful act.

Brief Bio for Shawn Lesser

Shawn Lesser is a seasoned finance professional and social entrepreneur, known for his work in impact investing and sustainable finance. He was previously the co-founder and Managing Partner at Big Path Capital, having played an instrumental role in shaping the firm’s mission to catalyze the flow of capital towards sustainable and socially responsible investments. Today he serves as the founder of THE REAL Mental Health Foundation.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Shawn comes to us today from Atlanta, where he resides with his family.


Shawn’s organization THE REAL Mental Health Foundation

Shawn Lesser on LinkedIn

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Episode Chapters

[0:04:40] – Shawn’s Story

Shawn shares his story of depression and how he hit a low point – a mental breakdown in December 2022. Shawn’s wife reached out to a friend from his past, Brent Herd, who was able to provide invaluable support. We discuss the importance of reaching out for help and how important it is to have a support system in place when dealing with mental health issues.

[0:12:23] – Learn about Shawn’s new organization “THE REAL”

[0:15:40] – Special Message from Wonder & Grow

[0:17:00] – Shawn Reveals His Main-Thing Wisdom

[0:18:12] – Supporting Friends With Mental Health

We explore the warning signs of depression and mental health struggles. Shawn shares tips on how to support a friend who is struggling. Ultimately, we learn that it is important to check on our friends and loved ones, as it can be incredibly powerful, and it doesn’t have to be heavy or difficult.

0:00:01 – Announcer
Wisdom. It’s an incredibly valuable asset, someone say, more precious than gold. It’s attractive, appealing, admirable. Conversely, a lack of wisdom is the basis of immaturity, blind spots and bad decisions. Wisdom, it can be gained over time, but it can’t be rushed. But wisdom can be shared. That’s precisely what we are here to do right now, today. We are here to hack wisdom, to distill it, to understand it and to process it. Why? To get better at life. Welcome to the main thing.

This is your new 9 minute podcast. I’m your host, Skip Lineberg, and I’ve set out to interview the wisest people I know. We’ll see what we can learn from each one when they’re faced with an incredibly difficult, soul piercing question. A complete mental breakdown, loss of function, unable to speak or move that describes the condition our guest, Shawn Lesser, found himself in one year ago. He fell apart, collapsed. In decades past we would have called it a nervous breakdown. You’ll hear all about it in just a few moments. As you might expect, Shawn will be talking openly about mental health. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. As Shawn has begun to heal and recover, to regain his mental health, he is intently and passionately focused on eliminating the stigma surrounding our discussion of mental health. In Shawn’s case, he’s particularly called to come to the aid of other men. He wants to elevate the conversation to help men recognize warning signs and he wants to help men learn the skills necessary to come alongside and support one another the best way to check in on a friend when we’re concerned about, or possibly worried about that person. These lessons, of course, apply to all of us, men and women alike. I daresay every single one of us has something valuable to learn today.

Before we get into it, let me recognize our newest patron of the podcast. Shout out to Emily from North Carolina, who’s now providing monthly funding to support our work. Thank you so much, Emily. Supporting patrons of our show help keep this pipeline of wisdom flowing. Plus, they get all kinds of cool bonus content, including our special deeper dive podcast, which we call the whole thing. These less edited, organic episodes contain more stories, more laughter and more fun with our wise guests Many, many minutes of extra conversation that typically don’t fit into our nine minute podcast package. If you’re interested, if you’d like to help support this important work, you can learn all about becoming a patron by visiting patreon dot com. I’ll put that link in the show notes so you can just click it to go right there. You’ll see that levels of support begin for as little as $6 per month.

Before I open up his mic and bring him on to the show, let me properly introduce our special guest. Shawn Lesser is a seasoned finance professional and social entrepreneur, known for his work in impact investing and sustainable finance. He was previously the co-founder and managing partner at Big Path Capital, having played an instrumental role in shaping the firm’s mission to catalyze the flow of capital towards sustainable and socially responsible investments. In this new chapter of his life, Shawn is a mental health advocate and co-founder of THE REAL. The organization’s mission is to build a global community around mental health. He is especially focused on men’s health because he sees a big need to come alongside and support men and their families. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Shawn comes to us today from Atlanta, where he resides with his family. Now settle in and get ready. In this special 20-minute episode of the Main Thing Podcast, you will discover why Shawn Lesser is one of the wisest people I know.

0:04:32 – Skip Lineberg

Shawn Lesser, welcome to the Main Thing podcast. So great to be with you this morning.

0:04:37 – Shawn Lesser
Likewise, Skip. I appreciate it.

0:04:40 – Skip
Let’s start with how we got connected. We’re gonna get into your, your fascinating story here in just a moment, but a little bit of housekeeping. We do this every show because this show has become an amazing family tree of connections. If you think back, how did you and I get connected?

0:04:55 – Shawn
Yeah, I think I’m pretty sure it’s through our Marcia Nelson, and I think she might have been a guest on your show before. I put on a lot of different conferences and events, and she participated in a bunch, so she’s yeah, she’s really terrific.

0:05:17 – Skip
Fine human being. Just salt of the earth. She was on Episode 11. For folks who want to, who might not have listened, go back to Episode 11. That’s going way back to year one, and Marcia is just an incredible connector and so generous, always thinking about who she can help. Thank you, Marcia!

Shawn, let’s get into your story for listeners. What I want to tell you about Shawn, what makes him so unique, is he’s not one of these people that go through life with this facade … who’s just pretending everything’s okay. He’s authentic, he’s real, he’s vulnerable. Shawn, would you start your story for listeners and tell us what you were doing … and then what happened?

0:06:01 – Shawn
So it was last September and I was. I was depressed, I was having trouble eating, I was having trouble sleeping and I lost forty pounds, which is terrific, but I was not on a diet.

And then it was a December fourteenth, it was a Wednesday, and I was on a Zoom call and basically had –I don’t know if it’s a medical term–but a full mental breakdown, where I wasn’t really functioning. I could hardly speak and move. I was also suicidal, telling my wife I just don’t want to be here anymore. Please just freaking, kill me. This thing was growing. I think also it was growing in terms of, like, not really sleeping and not really eating. Eventually, I just kind of cracked.

So that’s where I was, yeah, on a day last September.

0:06:58 – Skip
Yeah, let’s let’s zoom in on the depression part for just a moment, because if you hear me leaning in, and getting really concerned and really passionate about this, I am. I am very passionate about mental health and eliminating stigma and just getting it out there in the open. What was your depression like? Were you withdrawing?

0:07:18 – Shawn
So the depression was a lot of times isolating. And these are typical depression type symptoms. You don’t want to get out of bed. You don’t want to go into the shower. You don’t want to brush your teeth. You don’t want to go out of the house. You kind of don’t want to do anything. And on the other side, you kind of need to do those things, right? Just feeling that was, that was growing.

0:07:30 – Skip
Despondent, downcast?

0:07:033 – Shawn
Yeah, yeah. You know I wasn’t myself with my friends, with my family. You know, when you’re in that state, you don’t really want to talk to anybody. People are calling you and emailing you, and you’re just like you just like, “Please leave me alone.” Not responding normally. I mean you’re responding, but just like not typical. It’s funny because before that I was like the guy that you email, and I email you back within 10 seconds okay? So people are like,”Shawn – usually you’re the fastest response time in the world.” I just couldn’t handle it.

So we went to the hospital, this is Emory Hospital. Went to the emergency room and basically they brought someone out on a zoom machine. They’re like, “Hey, do you want to go to the psych ward?”
And at that time I didn’t really know what that that meant. So the first thing they do is they search you … for forks, knives, other things. They’re basically a place that ensures you don’t harm yourself. So they just took away all those different things, which makes sense. So I was in there for three days. That’s a whole other story, but I was in there for three days, and then I got out.

I’m 54, married with two kids. So my wife was at my house, and then my mom she’s 82. She lives in Long Island, so she came down to Atlanta. She was with my wife, and basically they were on a 24-hour Shawn watch, literally taking 12-hour shifts.

0:09:34 – Skip
I would imagine everyone’s just scared to death. What’s gonna happen? Very worried about you.

0:09:45 – Shawn
And then what happened is another guy comes into the story. So there’s a guy, his name is Brent Herd. So me and Brent our kids, played literally baseball together not too far from here. So Brent’s son and my daughter and my son played together on a team. Me and Brent were, you know, like baseball buddies … we weren’t like the best buddies. But you know, you see somebody at a game and you kind of hang out and then you go the next game, just become friendly, right. And then Brent was also friendly with my wife–not too friendly, but he was friendly with my wife.

0:10:19 – Skip
Watch it, Brent! [laughter]

0:10:21 – Shawn
So when this happened, my wife–her name’s Blanca–says, “You need to contact Brent Herd.” And I’m like why do I gotta contact that guy? I mean, I like him, he’s a good guy, but you know, what does he know about this? And she says she has a feeling. So my wife ended up texting Brent basically saying, “Hey, Shawn’s in a bad place, et cetera.” And Brent came back right away and he asked the right question.

So he said, “This is happening to a lot of guys. Is he in a safe place?” These are the right questions. Now, Brent’s not a therapist, but he’s been through something similar himself in the past.

If people are familiar with Alcoholic’s Anonymous, you have a sponsor. Brent was kind of like my mental health sponsor.

0:11:11 – Skip
I see, yeah.

0:11:13 – Shawn
Where he would call me, check on me. We’d go for walks and things like that. Or I’d be on the floor in pain, mental pain, and my wife would say, “You need to call Brent, he has the words.”

0:11:29 – Skip
So you met Brent and what happened from there?

0:11:33 – Shawn
So what happened from there is: I went away to two treatment centers one in Weimar, California, and another one in Hollywood, Florida. The treatment centers are a whole other story. They’re an interesting place, but they kind of take away your phone. You’re there. I was gone for around 70 days. You’re in therapy all day, doing other types of modalities and treatments there. So that was an interesting experience and meeting a lot of people that you wouldn’t normally hang out with. But somehow in those treatment centers you come together as a community. So there’s something strange about them, but there’s also something magical about being in that setting.

0:12:23 – Skip
For listeners. I’m looking at Shawn right now on screen and he’s wearing a ball cap that says “THE REAL.” It’s all caps, big, bold. My understanding of THE REAL is its mission is to help people. How are you guys going about that? How are you and Brent helping people?

0:12:40 – Shawn
Sure. So just kind of think of three C’s in a simple way. So one is we’re having conversations. So let me just take a little step back. We’ve been having conversations across the country. We did it in Atlanta, we did it in Martha’s Vineyard, in Nantucket, Greenwich CT, Southampton. We did it again in Chicago, and we’re doing speaking engagements across the country–and then doing some stuff globally. So the more we have these conversations in these groups, there are a couple of things that happen. So it’s also bringing down the stigma, and then when we share our story, other people feel comfortable to share their story. So when we were in Nantucket, at the end of the event, eight guys in the back were sharing their phone numbers with one another.

0:13:34 – Skip
There you go, yeah.

0:13:35 – Shawn
So that really comes back to the second part, which is community. For sure, therapy is great. Medications are great. But I think the thing that helped me the most is the community.

0:13:49 – Skip
Shawn, I applaud that. The community part is not to be minimized, not to be taken lightly. Because absent that, here’s how I’m feeling: I’m troubled, I’m broken and I’m alone. I’m struggling. Something’s wrong with me, I don’t know what, and I’m all alone. That’s a horrible place to be. But when you and your advocates and partners can come alongside men in that condition, then we can begin to make progress.

0:14:18 – Shawn
Yeah. So that’s what we’re trying to do with the community, and we have about 300 members now, is give guys a safe place to talk about this stuff and not feel judged. What also we do, Skip, is we have a lot of kind of “Batman calls,” where a friend of our friend says, “Hey, this guy’s in need.” We’re just like, “Okay, let’s get him on the call.” Again, I’m not a therapist, but can say, “Listen, I know where you are. I know you’re in the darkness, and it feels like it’s never, ever gonna end. But I’m gonna tell you from firsthand experience that it does, even though you think it won’t.”

So, that happens once or twice a week.

0:14:58 – Skip
Awesome. I have a couple of male friends like that, who on any given day, flip a coin which one of us is struggling. The other is there to provide encouragement.

Shawn, as we finish up on that topic, if one of our listeners feels like, “Oh my gosh, I need this!” How can they get in touch with, how can they find your organization and get in touch with someone there at the real?

0:15:18 – Shawn
Sure, they can go to the website. It’s the real dot biz, and then you can also sign up to be a member. It doesn’t cost anything. Right now we’re figuring out what we’re going to offer the members. One is a safe place. We’ll probably have some other things that we’re offering, but that’s the best way to get in touch.

0:15:37 – Skip
Awesome, and I’ll put a link to that in the show notes.

0:15:43 – Announcer
Hey listeners, today’s episode is focused on mental health. You’ve heard Shawn talk about his depression, extreme stress, no interest in eating, difficulty sleeping and his eventual breakdown. Who knows if Shawn could have avoided any of it. But one thing I do know we have to learn to get better at caring for ourselves. I’m no exception, in fact, last month, I began a program of self-care, mindfulness and relaxation with Wonder and grow. Wonder and grow guide you through natural spaces, interweaving mindfulness, movement and sensory awareness experiences. Your senses awaken, you’re more creative, you experience the healing properties of nature. Wonder and grow is for all ages and backgrounds. They offer monthly events, workplace wellness and much, much more. Wondering grow is a community of people who share a passion for nature and a desire to live a balanced, inspired, fulfilled life. Head over to wonder and grow dot org. Find out how you can join the adventure. Mindful nature experience from Wonder & Grow. Start yours at wonder and grow dot org.

0:16:55 – Skip
Shawn Lesser, what’s the main thing you’ve learned in your lifetime so far?

0:17:00 – Shawn
Sure. Skip, the main thing I learned in my lifetime so far is that the most important things are our relationships. I’ve made money. I’ve lost money. And how do you feel? But the times that I felt the best about myself and people around me is when I had good relationships, that I felt comfortable speaking with people, meeting people. To me, that’s what life’s about, more than having stuff.

Stuff’s nice, terrific, wonderful. But really it’s the relationships. It’s also kind of, you know, on this journey it was just interesting, just kind of playing it forward and just making new relationships with people. I’m definitely helping people, but as I’m helping them, it’s helping me. So the more relationships you make, it’s really reciprocal on both sides.

0:17:58 – Skip
The biggest treasure in life is relationships. More valuable than our stuff, more valuable than our financial holdings. I love it!

Shawn, let’s go back and provide a little more specific help and guidance to our listeners. Someone who’s concerned about others. They want to be a good friend, they want to care and provide good support. What are those warning signs? And then, how could someone step in, if a friend is indeed struggling … perhaps with depression or some other struggle? Could you talk to us a little bit on that note?

0:18:36 – Shawn
Yes, so one is it’s kind of the signs. Isolation for sure is a sign. I would say also changing. You know, I didn’t eat. Either people eat a lot, or they eat nothing. And then I would say not only isolation, but then even when being with people, they’re not engaged how they usually are … not acting how you usually act.

And usually, when you ask a guy how they’re doing, they might say something like: “Yeah, I’m doing okay.” So that’s kind of a tell for guys is when a guy says, “Yeah, I’m doing all right… you know, I’m okay.” No! That’s guy-talk for, “I’m doing pretty crappy.” So there’s these kind of these signs.

0:19:32 – Skip
Earlier, you mentioned response time, whether it’s email or callbacks, or text responses.

0:19:39 – Shawn
Yeah, and I ended up at a 10. So you’re trying to catch this when it’s like a two or a three. So those are some of the some of the signs.

And then what are some of the things that you can do? It’s challenging. One is just kind of–and I do this with people all the time, and they do it with me–checking in on them. Cause, just some people, like you were saying, when they’re in that space, you just feel like dude, I’m all alone. No one feels like this. They don’t know how I feel, no one’s ever been there. So it’s nice to have other friends check in with with you and also have friends say, “Listen, dude, that happened to me. This isn’t unusual.” So you don’t feel like. You know, I’m just kind of some outlier, some kind of freak. No, no, this is happening. It’s happening so much, but you’re not hearing about it.

Engage that person. Even though they might not want to engage. So you would say, “I’m coming over, and we’re going to go for a walk.” You know things like that. And then and then I would say, “You know, I’ll go to see the medical professionals.” Because you could only take it so far, and people get to a higher level. Yeah, they need greater guidance and help.

So I’m never saying I’m a therapist, but but I can create community. You know, I could understand how people are feeling. I could be empathetic because I’ve been there.

0:21:05 – Shawn

You just send those texts every couple of days and just, but I hear what you’re saying. You’re like, oh, but it’s the opposite of you saying, “I’m getting into that guy’s business.”

On the other side, that guy, even though he might come off like I don’t want you to do that. It’s BS. They actually want to be like, oh, somebody cares about me, right, it’s kind of it’s. That’s what you’re showing: “Dude, I care about you. Man, you’re a good guy.”

0:21:32 – Skip
Yeah, we all struggle and no, one should struggle alone.

0:21:26 – Shawn
Exactly. Check on your friends it’s pretty easy or your loved ones, just like, or you might have a sister that you haven’t spoken to in a while, just hey, how’s it going?

Hey, I’m just calling you. I don’t call you for any purpose, I’m just seeing what’s going on, because you don’t know where that person is at that time and you know in place you might be really kind of I’m not going to say well kind of saving their lives In some cases, just feel like, oh, it was like I’m all alone, and then my buddy just checked on me, right, so that’s you don’t realize how, how powerful it is.

0:22:08 – Skip
There’s Shawn’s assignment, his charge, his homework for each of us: check on your friends.

0:22:14 – Shawn
Yeah, that’s it. Not hard.

0:22:17 – Skip
Shawn Lesser, thank you so much for coming on to the show, and sharing your story, sharing your main thing wisdom. I can’t thank you enough.

0:22:23 – Skip
Likewise, I’ll see you later.

0:22:24 – Skip
So long. So long for now,

0:22:28 – Announcer
Wow, that goes by incredibly fast, doesn’t it? Time flies when you’re hacking wisdom. I hope you’re left wanting more. Sink up with us again next time on the main thing, for nine more minutes of wisdom. See you next time on the Main Thing for nine more minutes of wisdom.

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