Let’s Talk, with Howie Mandel


By Adam Freill

When American Standard launched its ActiClean self-cleaning toilet earlier this year, the company linked up with much-loved germophobe and practical joker Howie Mandel.

Mandel, who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale, accidentally found himself in the position of being an "ambassador of mental health" after revealing his own challenges during an interview several years ago. Since then he’s embraced the cause of positive mental health, and encourages others to be open about their own mental health issues, in hopes that society loses the stigma associated with it.

"A lot of people have a soapbox. I happen to have a throne," he joked during an exclusive interview with Mechanical Business, right after he inquired about being the centerfold in the magazine. "I never dreamed that I would be a model."

Being connected to a toilet was a natural fit for the funnyman, but pitchman duties aside, he liked what he saw of the technology from the get-go.

"I know they approached me because I have become a renowned germophobe," he says, "but I would have one even if I didn’t have anything to do with American Standard because I am irked by the fact that anybody has to hold a brush and clean their toilet… In my house, everyone’s hands are clean because they don’t clean the toilet. They don’t have to."

Removing the Stigma

Bring up the topic of mental health in a group and it’s not uncommon for an uncomfortable silence to occur, but it need not be that way, says Mandel.

"I am a renowned proponent of removing the stigma of mental health issues," he says. "Growing up in the ’50s, nobody talked about it, nobody really did anything about it, and I just think that [talking about it] is the answer to all of our problems."

Howie discovered just how prevalent an issue mental health is after divulging some of his struggles during a radio interview.

"Accidentally, I blurted out what my issues were, but as it turns out I am not the only one with issues. Every human being has issues. You don’t have to be diagnosed with something that has an acronym or has letters in front of it. You just have to be a human being," he explains. "I suffer from anxiety and depression, and I made jokes because laughing was just a lot easier than crying, but I battled, and it is a battle that I am involved in every day.

"Life is a fight, and I am having a good time in this battle, and it is well worth battling for, but we have got to talk about it – whether that is in a plumbing magazine, or with the guy next to you on the bus, or whether it is me on stage," he says.

"If we just talk, and we are all open, and we all know that we are all awkward, and it is weird and it is funny, and even if the beginning of the conversation is, ‘You know, they have a toilet where you can just push one button and walk away,’ we just have to communicate about how we feel about things and how we do things, and things will be better.

"And there’s always help."

At work, many of us feel that our state of mental health needs to be hidden, but that just adds to the stigma, and doesn’t help the person who is struggling internally, Mandel notes.

"If you hurt your back as a plumber, a million people will have a chiropractor, or you can go and get a massage, but if you just can’t function because there’s a lot of pressure, or you just became a parent, or somebody in your family was diagnosed with something traumatic, there’s nobody in place just to talk to," he explains.

"They tell you, ‘I need to get a retainer because my teeth are crooked.’ They’ll tell you their back hurts or their ankle hurts, but nobody will tell you, ‘I can’t function. I’m anxious and scared, so I can’t go to work today.’ They won’t tell you that," he says.

"I don’t understand the difference. We go take care of our dental health and 90 per cent of the time there’s nothing wrong – we just go for a checkup. But nobody goes and gets a checkup by just talking to somebody.

"Just like dental health, we have to take care of our mental health."

Howie, the High School Foreman

The seeds of Howie Mandel’s comedy career were sown long before he was discovered during an open mic night at a Los Angeles comedy club. His practical jokes were a contributing factor to his being asked to leave his school a little bit before graduation, and one of his best capers was his attempt to update his high school.

"I authorized, through the Yellow Pages at the time, people to come out and measure and give bids on an addition to the library," he says.

From his classroom on the third floor, he marveled as a crew arrived on the scene.

"I was looking down onto the field and I could see these guys measuring. And then I saw the principal wander out onto the field, and then this animated conversation."

Soon enough, Howie was called down to the office, where his principal asked: "Did you authorize a company to put an addition onto the library?"

"I answered very seriously," says the funnyman. "No, I am getting three bids. I am a little more responsible than that. I will not give my authorization without getting three bids.

"And one thing leads to another, and now I am in the most popular plumbing magazine in the world. I wish that principal was around today because I would show up at his office and slap this magazine down on his desk and say, ‘Ha!’"