Whether he’s touring the country as a stand-up comic, filming hidden pranks on his television show Deal With It, or appearing as a judge on America’s Got Talent, Howie Mandel is used to eliciting laughs.
Yet the Canadian-born entertainer gets serious about the need to normalize brain disorders like depression and anxiety, putting them on a par with other medical conditions.
“We take care of our physical health and even our dental health, but we don’t take care of our mental health,” he points out.
In recent years, Mandel has become more vocal about erasing the stigma surrounding depression and other psychological disorders. He talks passionately about the need for more mental health resources in schools and workplaces.
He’s firmly convinced that if better information had been available when he was a kid, he would have been far less likely to develop depression.
“If I had known as a child what I know now, then maybe I wouldn’t have felt so isolated,” Mandel reflects. “And sadly, there hasn’t been a lot of headway made.”
Growing up in a Toronto suburb in the 1960s, Mandel faced frequent ridicule from his classmates. He was the quirky kid with a short attention span and a colossal fear of germs.
When he walked around school with his shoes untied because he didn’t want to touch the dirty laces, for example, he was an object of derision. The teasing left him sad and unsettled. He recognized he was different from his peers, but didn’t understand why. He has said he felt like a misfit at a time when he just wanted to be like everybody else.
We take care of our physical health and even our dental health, but we don’t take care of our mental health.
In those days before labels and evaluations, the best anyone could say was that he was “suffering from ‘Howie,’” as he puts it.
Now he knows his inability to sit still and pay attention is the result of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He knows his dread of contamination is mysophobia, an anxiety disorder that’s related to his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
(Mandel’s trademark fist bump and his bald pate both grew out of his germ phobia: He avoids having to shake anyone’s hand, and he’s said he feels “cleaner” with his head shaved.)
Luckily for the young Mandel, he found compensating strengths and family support. Mandel has said his parents accepted his differences and helped him to manage his depression. He also discovered at an early age that he enjoyed being the center of attention by making people laugh.
“My mother got my sense of humor, even when I was a kid. I would just do things that tickled my fancy in the moment, and she would ask me who I was entertaining. and I’d say, ‘Well, me,’” Mandel recalls in his 2009 memoir Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me.
In high school, Mandel gained a reputation as the class clown and a prankster. And he met the love of his life, Terry, whom he married in 1980.
After an over-the-top prank got him expelled—the story is that he solicited bids on a building addition while impersonating a school board member—Mandel found work as a carpet salesman.
After hours, he pursued stand-up comedy. He discovered his passion when he got up on stage during amateur night at a club. Making people laugh made him feel good.
Mandel says performing helps calm him and creates a “comfort zone” where irrational thoughts are muted. Humor—and the ability to poke fun at his idiosyncrasies—is one of his tools to stay emotionally healthy.
By the late 1970s, Mandel was entertaining audiences at the Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto with his brand of antic humor. He started performing at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles after a trip to California, which led to appearances on the game show Make Me Laugh and other TV shows.
Soon Mandel was touring as a comic, even opening for Diana Ross in Las Vegas. He snagged some acting gigs and voiceovers, most famously Gizmo in the Gremlins movies and several characters on Muppet Babies.
His six-year run as Dr. Wayne Fiscus on the hit TV show St. Elsewhere, which debuted in 1982, put him on the celebrity map. Gen Y-ers, however, may fondly remember Mandel’s animated children’s show Bobby’s World, which borrowed a voice he’d been doing in his nightclub act for years. The Emmy-nominated series ran for most of the 1990s.
As his career flourished, only those closest to Mandel saw how he struggled to keep his symptoms in check. Although his rational mind understands that contact with everyday germs won’t truly harm him, he travels with a black light in order to locate and neutralize microbes in hotel rooms.
I really believe that everyone out there could benefit from therapy, whether they are dealing with relationship or job issues, or stress or depression.
OCD leaves Mandel feeling he has no control over his surroundings or his own mind. He talks about going back to his house 30 times to check that he locked the door, and intrusive, irrational thoughts that ratchet up his anxiety levels: “It can be hard to shut off the ‘what ifs?’ and my feelings of constant fear.”
In his book, he points out that most people know what it’s like “to have a little anxiety in their lives, to feel nervous or worried. But there have been times through my life where my anxiety has been paralyzing, and that’s where the coping skills I learned in therapy have helped.”
Mandel has been in talk therapy for over a decade, exploring “everything from traditional psychoanalysis to cognitive therapy.” He’s also pursued psychopharmacotherapy options, experimenting with different medications to see what best controls his symptoms.
“If the first thing doesn’t work, there is another alternative, and if that doesn’t work there is another,” Mandel says. “People should know there are ways to make their life better. They don’t have to be ashamed or suffer in silence.”
While he hopes that speaking out about his experiences will encourage others to seek help, he avoids discussing specifics of his treatment plan because “there’s no one answer for every person.”
Even treatments that worked for him in the past need to be re-evaluated when they’re no longer effective.
“Managing your symptoms is a lifelong commitment and you need to have open communication with your doctor to let them know how you’re feeling, what’s working and what’s not,” he notes.
Although Mandel has admitted he waited until his 40s to get professional help—he’d finally reached a point where his symptoms were so debilitating he couldn’t manage anymore—he’s become a strong proponent of psychotherapy and medication as needed.
“I really believe that everyone out there could benefit from therapy, whether they are dealing with relationship or job issues, or stress or depression,” he says.
It’s been true for his own family. Things that other parents take for granted—sitting down to play quietly after dinner, or taking their kids into a public rest room—have been hard for Mandel. He calls his wife “a saint” for sticking with him and supporting him.
“My wife and three kids have had to cope through the years with my idiosyncrasies,” Mandel told USA Today. “All of us have gone through therapy.”
Mandel shares such information freely these days. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s, when Mandel was a guest on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show, that he first spoke publicly about his psychiatric challenges.
Stern made a joke about Mandel not wanting to touch the doorknob of the studio, and one thing led to another. Soon, Mandel was telling not only Stern, but also his millions of listeners, that he grapples with OCD.
“The fact that I told Howard Stern on the air that I had a serious mental [health] issue and was seeing a therapist was like revealing my biggest, darkest secret,” Mandel recalls. “I remember leaving the studio feeling anxious and wondering what the consequences of my admission would be. Would anyone hire me? How would this affect my wife and kids?”
People should know there are ways to make their life better. They don’t have to be ashamed of suffer in silence.
Outside the studio, Mandel encountered a man who had just heard his revelation. To Mandel’s surprise, the man admitted he also wrestled with OCD.
“That was the first time I realized there were others who shared my pain,” Mandel says. Since then, “I’ve learned that depression and anxiety affect everyone. And yet it’s sad that so many people still suffer alone and in silence.”
Disclosure certainly didn’t hurt Mandel professionally. After hosting the phenomenally popular game show Deal or No Deal on NBC from 2005 to 2010, he moved over to become a judge on the network’s America’s Got Talent reality show.
By 2009, he had stars on both the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto.
He continues to tour North America doing live comedy shows, and last year he became executive producer of the hidden-camera show Deal With It. He is also working on two documentaries that reflect his roots: Gone South: How Canada Invented Hollywood and Being Canadian.
With his advocate’s hat on, Mandel has lobbied on Capitol Hill to draw attention to Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. He champions programs like one at a school his son attended in California, where time was set aside each day for the children to express their thoughts and worries to a professional counselor.
“We take children in annually for visits with their pediatrician and dentist, so why is mental health also not recognized as an ongoing need for prevention, assessment and care?” he asks.
“Not only do children need to be assessed for mental health, but an overall system needs to be implemented to benefit every American, through every stage of their life.”
Mandel notes that the more we can talk openly about mental health issues, the more we will chip away at stigma. But he acknowledges it can be difficult to do.
“Most people think nothing of telling their employer they need to leave work early for a dentist appointment,” Mandel says. “But the thought of telling your boss that you’re leaving early to see a therapist makes people feel anxious, and they worry it may jeopardize their jobs.”
He adds jokingly, “Maybe instead of saying they have an appointment with their therapist, it would be easier if they said they needed to take off a few hours for a little Howie Mandel.”
Depression & OCD
Howie Mandel has a joke about what doctors would call his co-occurring conditions: “I say that between having A-Fib [an irregular heartbeat], ADHD, and OCD, that I’ve almost completed the entire alphabet. I just need to buy a vowel.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly one in two adults with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) have at least one anxiety disorder, and symptoms such as restlessness and trouble concentrating overlap. Individuals with ADHD are also two to three times more likely to have depression as the general population.
Major depressive disorder is 10 times more likely in people with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), whether because of shared underlying mechanisms in the brain or emotional difficulties raised by compulsive behavior.
Explore your meditative side. Mandel does this on seven-mile runs, which he says clears his mind. For others, this may mean listening to music or practicing yoga.
Seek out support. “No one can handle issues such as depression, anxiety or [phobias] on their own and it’s incredibly isolating,” Mandel says. “I see a therapist and recommend finding a therapist you feel comfortable with, or connecting with a support group where people can help you work through your issues and reinforce that you aren’t alone.”
Don’t forget to laugh. “Laughter is a great bridge,” Mandel says. “It’s been my salvation and has helped me through some hard times and uncomfortable situations.”