Bastyr University alumnus Steven Rissman, ND ('96), helps young men understand their anger and find inner resources to manage it. As a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he saw male students struggle under social pressures to mask their emotions. He developed a course on men's health and devotes his naturopathic practice to treating men with harmful anger and anxiety. In 2011, the Metro State student honor society named him Outstanding Faculty of the Year.
Dr. Rissman spoke to Bastyr late on Friday, December 14, the day of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Your work helping young men with anger issues is sadly relevant today. How did you choose this focus?
When I began teaching, I realized how young men were unaware of themselves and very masked. When I could get behind that mask, I could help them find something within them that gave them a kind of depth. They recognized a part of themselves they hadn't seen before, which seemed to carry them through to success.
Since I'm a full-time faculty member, my naturopathic practice is limited, and I've chosen to focus on the emotional issues of anger, anxiety and depression. The story I hear repeatedly is how young men are struggling. They're unmotivated. They're lost in a virtual world. So I developed a men's health class at Metro State that tries to get to the heart of men's issues, which is the fact that they're very hidden. They don't like to reveal themselves.
It's sometimes said that anger is a secondary emotion that has its root in deeper emotions like shame or fear. Is that what you find?
Yes, definitely. It's a more acceptable emotion for men to show in our culture than fear. William Pollack wrote about this in Real Boys in the '90s and found there was a "boy code" which is to say: "I'm just fine. Everything is fine." He found boys were depressed because they couldn't really say who they were. They're allowed to show anger, but they're not allowed to show anything else. So anger becomes how they express themselves.
Tell us about the Joseph Campbell quote on your website: "It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure."
That invitation down into the depths of oneself is something our culture does not encourage. As a result, we have a perpetually adolescent society. We don't teach people how to enter the mystery of themselves and go through that passage from childhood to adulthood. We have a lot of people who have not taken that journey.
You're trained as a naturopathic doctor. How can naturopathic medicine address these problems?
We really need to teach doctors how to work with men. Many physicians of all kinds get very uncomfortable with men because men are uncomfortable. Instead of helping men look into themselves and come out from behind the mask, doctors let patients manipulate the conversation so it doesn't go to those uncomfortable places.
Naturopaths have an advantage because we're trained to be listeners and teachers for our patients. It's one of our core principles. We also have a responsibility to figure out where we're not communicating well with men.
We often hear that men don't take care of themselves. But that's a simplistic view. Psychotherapists who work with young men discover they will do anything to protect their honor. It's not that they don't take care of themselves, it's that they're taking care of a different part of themselves. We see this in machismo cultures where some men are reluctant to get prostate exams, because that's an area of vulnerability. Rather than nag men and tell them what they should do, we have to understand they've been taught their whole lives not to be vulnerable.
It sounds like you see counseling psychology as central to the naturopathic toolbox.
That's true, but it's not just about psychotherapy. You have to understand emotions in order to connect with your patients enough to talk about their cardiovascular risks. To access the physical, you have to make that person comfortable.
That's key for doctors to learn. We don't talk enough about men with chronic disease. What about men with prostate cancer who go on hormones that completely strip them of testosterone? What about men diagnosed with osteoporosis, where all the literature is written for women? Often, men refuse to deal with osteoporosis, because we think of it as a women's disease. What about men who are diagnosed with breast cancer, God forbid? We need to learn to talk to them.
How did you become interested in natural medicine?
I grew up as a farm kid in Illinois. I was always interested in medicine, but I got discouraged by conventional medicine. I was accepted to an MD program and chose not to go. I taught high school science for five years. I was in Durango, Colorado, talking about medicine to a friend who introduced me to a naturopathic doctor (ND). We had a conversation about naturopathic medicine, and I never looked back.
What was your time at Bastyr like?
It was one of the best times of my life, despite how rigorous it was. There were difficult times that really helped me understand who I am and how I want to practice. There's a metamorphosis that happens over those four years. It's a process of stripping away of the ego. You have to get to know your demons before you can sit with a patient who's struggling. If you don't, it's very difficult to treat somebody.
It's a slow process, it takes time. But we went through that together at some level, and I have classmates that became lifelong friends. Jamey Wallace, ND, (chief medical officer at Bastyr Center for Natural Health) was one of my best friends and continues to be near and dear to me. Eric Yarnell, ND, (a core faculty member in Bastyr's Department of Botanical Medicine) was my roommate and continues to be a dear friend.
How did you go from Bastyr to teaching at Metropolitan State University of Denver?
I spent a year as a resident at Bastyr's clinic and then decided it was time to move on. I moved to Colorado and started practicing. I was asked to guest lecture in MSU's Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program, and then asked to teach a class, and it grew from there.
You must see setbacks in your work. What keeps you going through difficult days?
There are struggles. We see what happened today, and we encounter our own demons and struggles in life. You just keep going. That's sort of a life motto in itself. You endure. When we do that, we have some very uplifting moments.
I got an email today from a student from my first men's health class in 2008. He had to drop out because he didn't have money. I've been wondering about him, and he sent me an email today out of the blue. He said he's graduating this week and wanted to thank me for giving him something special. Something in that class inspired him, and he lived by that and figured out a way to fight his way back to school.
Jane Guiltinan, ND, (dean of Bastyr's School of Naturopathic Medicine) used to tell that it's not us. We're just the conduit through which something passes. And that's how I feel. I'm right where I need to be, and by doing what I do, something amazing comes out of it, even though I can't take ownership of it.
Learn more about studying naturopathic medicine at Bastyr.