By Emily Kemme –
Paul Ronto is one of those guys who seems undaunted by life’s challenges. Over the last 20 years—15 of them working in the outdoor industry—he’s climbed mountains, biked, kayaked and run all over the world, including 24-hour endurance races.
He also struggles with anxiety and depression.
Ronto not only admits it, he’s tackled it through therapy, a diagnosis of traumatic brain injuries and by channeling those dark moments into creating active adventure trips with friends.
Ronto had searched for ways to help address his own mental health issues. He found help he didn’t qualify for, including outdoor programs for veterans and people fighting diseases like multiple sclerosis and cancer; there were also numerous programs for women.
Ronto discovered for himself how active back country experiences generated powerful camaraderie and opportunities to connect in a meaningful way. He also knew there was a chasm of stigma men were afraid to cross: asking for help with mental health issues. The connections and camaraderie men enjoyed on the trips allowed them to open up and even discuss treatment.
That’s why he and his partners developed TYPE3LIFE, a program to get guys into the wild and, from there, subtly address mental health issues. The team combines Ronto’s years of work at the National Outdoor Leadership School, Chief Operations Officer Sean Glenn’s U.S. Marine leadership and Programming Chief Paul Kelly’s belief that outdoor challenges impact physical and mental wellbeing. His company offers wilderness adventure trips for men of all backgrounds and fitness levels.
Ronto believes the problem men have confronting their mental health stems partly from aging. “As we age, one of men’s biggest hurdles is losing our community,” he says.
By that, he means the community of other men, something that men may give lower priority to after marrying, having kids and moving along an often-competitive career path.
Men feel isolated, and they don’t feel they can ask for help in this era of toxic masculinity, he says.
“We feel like we always have to win, and it’s exhausting to constantly have to deal and present as successful,” he says. “Men don’t talk about problems with other men, so they never learn that other men are struggling with the same issues.”
This sense of disconnection and that they alone are troubled by these issues, as well as their fear of appearing weak, can lead to depression and suicide. White middle-aged males are one of the highest demographics for committing suicide. Getting men to open up about things that are hard in their life is step one for feeling less alone, Ronto says.
Ronto and his partners believe that by creating relationships and a community bonded through the challenge and adversity found in the outdoors, there’s potential for reducing men’s stress, anxiety, depression and a host of life-threatening diseases like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular health.
TYPE3LIFE’s mechanism puts trip participants through challenging experiences in wild, adventure-based travel, including off-trail hiking, sea kayaking, canyoneering and more.
“The goal is to push men to the point where they feel vulnerable from the experience itself and are willing to open up,” Ronto explains. “We’re not a survivalist company—you don’t suffer—but when you go do something really hard, that celebration afterwards tends to be more intentional than an easy Saturday morning hike. It sets up the conversation to go to a place where men admit struggle.”
Adding a curriculum with moments like sitting around a campfire and talking about what’s difficult to talk about—and then looking at how the physical challenges learned in the wild can apply to everyday life—gives men more confidence to face issues they’re dealing with.
“Using four to six activities designed around team building and leadership, we push men to think about how what they’re doing impacts life moving forward…,” Ronto says.
Pulling a concept from the war novel, “The Things They Carried,” the TYPE3 team asks participants to write down emotional weights, worries and problems holding them back or that occupy their mind. What’s written down is then shared with another participant who is asked to read it and carry it for the day.
“This symbolizes men giving their worries, frustrations and fears to someone else, to let it go for a while. It leads to conversations about the hardships we carry around as men,” he says. “The idea conceptualizes that men, with support from their community, can let someone help them with what’s bothering them.”
There’s also a flag ceremony where men hang flags on a clothesline—Ronto compares them to prayer flags—where the participants are asked to reflect on their feelings.
“We try to get them to be transparent about their feelings in a public place, but this isn’t a ‘kumbaya,’ sit in a circle group and talk about the ‘woowoo’ stuff,” Ronto says. “These are activities for masculine men. There’s a huge benefit if you take that first step, even if you’re uncomfortable with it. Through community, we gain confidence in ourselves to face the hurdles in front of us.”
Addressing mental health through therapy
Dr. James Lutz is a licensed professional counselor at UCHealth Greeley Hospital and is part of an integrated team of healthcare providers. He says the integrated care model is better for patients to receive mental health care because it eliminates the hoops that often get in the way of good intentions.
“Men don’t want to talk about their feelings, and often don’t understand how the therapeutic process works,” he says. “This way, a doctor can pop in my door and suggest that I see a patient. They may have noticed there are things going on through talking with a patient during a yearly physical; they’ll use assessments for depression or anxiety that prompt a recommendation to go talk to someone.”
By being present as part of the care team, Lutz says it helps knock down the barrier that men have when talking about their mental health.
“The messaging they get is ‘suck it up, just deal with it,’ because men tend to shut down the emotions. These things are very normal, but men feel isolated because they don’t have the support system, and they’re worried about being judged. It’s a negative connotation, that people will think something is wrong with them.”
Lutz offers these steps for men to address their mental health:
What is therapy: Think of it as well-being and taking care of yourself. If you break your arm, you don’t stare at it—you go see a doctor. Therapy isn’t about sharing your life story. Lutz begins a new session by explaining what’s going on in the brain physiologically and addresses misconceptions about the process. And he reassures patients: moods don’t identify you; you’re a person first.
Learning skills to look at situations differently: Men talk about being more forgiving to others but are very critical of themselves, which leads to negative coping skills. They hear messaging that they’re not supposed to be emotional, not supposed to cry, which leads to anger—that’s how men protect themselves, Lutz says. By allowing men to see how that impacts their life and relationships, there are simple things they can do to get to a better place. Being open to communication is a place to start.
Goal setting: Patient-driven therapy helps people get where they want to be, from a few sessions to weekly therapy. Often, with a workable toolbox, men find that a little tweak has a trickle effect in improving all aspects of their relationships.
Healthy management steps: After talking about basic components and how mental health manifests physically in the body, Lutz says it starts making sense. Then we can take health steps for better management. Once men realize they can change how they react to a situation, they understand that they’re in control.
Emily Kemme is a Colorado freelance writer.