Pass the time in your room alone: On music and mental health

In seventh grade, I was enrolled in a music composition class. Every Friday, students were allowed to bring in a CD and lyric sheets to share with the rest of the room to discuss and analyze a chosen song. Because my favorite band was Blink-182 shortly before it was my turn, I opted to showcase “Adam’s Song” to my fellow classmates. I never had the chance to actually do so, however, because after printing 20 copies of the lyrics, which tell a tale of suicide and depression, an administrator ushered me into their office and asked me if my decision to bring this track into my very small, very sheltered middle school was an attempt to express my own struggles with mental health.

I hadn’t really considered the definition of “mental health” before this incident, perhaps because I was more concerned with my own physical health at that point trying countless physical therapy methods to combat cerebral palsy. As I grew older and my love of music became more important to me, I came to understand that one’s mental health and one’s favorite songs could work together as a coping mechanism or loudspeaker for one’s own personal battles. I’m not alone in this mindset, even though those that share my viewpoint realize that the music industry needs to adapt if fans are ever going to talk about mental health openly.

“There's a constant dialogue of mental health in my lyrics. Since I started writing songs, I've used it as a cathartic release for my anger, depression and, rarely, joy,” Antarctigo Vespucci co-frontman Chris Farren explains. “I'm grateful to be able to do it for a living because I'm constantly forced to face my own faults and not become complacent in my emotions.”

Before founding his current project with former Bomb the Music Industry! founder Jeff Rosenstock, he turned a band name he came up with at 16, Fake Problems, into a celebrated, if underrated, rock outfit. “At the time, I felt misunderstood and like an outcast. I had all of these songs about my feelings and I felt ashamed of that, so in a self-deprecating precautionary move I labeled the project Fake Problems. In my head it kind of took away the power from anyone who wanted to make fun of me for expressing myself.”

While that group seems to be on an extended break, the Florida-based songwriter still continues his mission to articulate his own mental health, through therapy or a musical outlet. Last holiday season, proceeds from his digital-only Christmas album Like A Gift From God Or Whatever were forwarded to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), The decision to transform a ridiculous solo endeavor into a charitable venture came from the desire to expand his understanding of the larger world he teases in his songwriting. As he elaborates, “I've struggled with anxiety and depression for a few years now…but I wanted to know more beyond my own experience. I wanted to align myself with an organization that would help me do that, or force me to do that, really.”

The nationwide touring cycles and constant buzz surrounding Boston indie quartet Somos forced vocalist and bassist Michael Fiorentino to confront mental health in a way that alerted fans and media outlets alike. Earlier this year, he revealed his struggles with depression and anxiety and announced Somos would cancel a series of dates supporting the emo-rock band Dads. “The break of several months between our first national tour with Modern Baseball [in winter 2014] and [this spring’s] Tigers Jaw tour provided us with much-needed time to recharge. In a very basic sense, I used that time to start seeking treatment. If we had gone on the Dads tour, I think the band would have imploded by the end of it.” For someone who ended the explosive Temple Of Plenty with a rallying cry (“Repair, it’s what urgently needed, young man”), it’s a far more resounding statement to follow through on one’s own advice.

For acts anticipating loaded show schedules, Christian Holden, vocalist and bassist of the Hotelier, believes in the importance of self-care. “Touring kind of destroys your body, so exercising and not eating $500 worth of Taco Bell is a good start. Taking care of your body is like good practice of self-care in general. But also, forgiving yourself for not taking care of your body works, too.” This steady balance of learning to put one’s self first––and understanding when snags occur in that routine––are part of a larger reminder, to “make sure [someone is] being self-determined and empowered” whenever that seems possible and safe.

The issue of safety can be applied to musical situations which call for physical comfort (see my last column on accessibility at Warped Tour), but also those which require emotional and mental well-being. For Judy Hong, operating Quiet Year Records in a localized, DIY-minded hub in central Virginia has underlined the need for safe spaces which respect the entire spectrum of personal pathways which intersect in any growing arts community. “Imagine you’re in a climate where you feel unsafe, or that you’re not going to be heard or that you’re alone. There’s no foundation, support or care there. We create the scene that we want to be a part of, which means that confronting things like low self-esteem, self-hatred, body image issues and even race, class and privilege needs to happen; they’re part of the wider world we live in. When people come together and make things more equal…they’re changing the way that things can be talked about when you do things compassionately and out of love.” While mental health and maintaining self-care is by definition an individual journey, Hong believes better understanding of this human experience needs to be achieved in these larger, music-driven groups. “It’s weird … because no one likes to talk to one another about their feelings or confront their friends or have to experience negative emotions because there’s no script for it … I feel like those that need to scrape by with their music need to scrape hard, so everyone just needs to look out for each other.” The upstart label owner also hints at a concept that, even as a person with a fair deal of knowledge about disability culture, I was unfamiliar with: structural disability. Buildings that tend to have features which can be overwhelming for those with physical disabilities, such as a doorway that isn’t wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, are structurally disabled.

The opposite of structural disability is universal design. While compassion, love and encouragement for a more open dialogue are components of the ideal universal design of the music industry’s socialization of mental health, there are a few other institutional reforms that are needed. “The way we shape our work weeks and management techniques––especially in the music industry––can really affect how a person is able to manage their mental health issues … the music industry doesn’t really know how to slow down or make room for days off for these issues or [their] unexpected triggers,” Hong continues. “There’s really no other way you can structure your life when you’re a touring artist, because you need to tour, but how can you get mental health care on the road? Even those involved in music journalism and freelance writing may struggle in similar ways.”

Luckily, Sheridan Allen was entering her final semester studying social work at Northern Kentucky University when she noticed the lack of free mental health counseling and care for touring musicians and industry professionals. “I had a sort of existential, now-or-never crisis about actually working in the music industry … and I started to think about the pressures of working in music … and the stigma that exists against mental health treatment in our community.” Last January, she founded Punk Talks and began working with Hartford four-piece Sorority Noise to spread her services to the festival community, going as far as sponsoring a stage of local artists at Michigan’s Bled Fest in May. However, her degree-driven expertise was never intended to be solely for those with a defined stake in the scene. By email, she is always offering free, unbiased consultations to everyone from casual listeners to those who are industry veterans, because as she repeatedly affirms, “I will never turn away anyone who needs help. Ever. That is all that I can say about that, honestly. Punk Talks will always be a safe and open place to those who need it.”

Speaking about his friend’s mission, Sorority Noise vocalist and guitarist Cameron Boucher stresses its necessity, saying, “It's very important that we support her and use her skills because she is here in a scene that needs more than music to help.”

Sorority Noise recently released an album, Joy, Departed, which puts Boucher’s own wrestling with mental health and addiction to Pinkerton-grade tape. Its release comes after Boucher’s own hesitation to bring such personal admissions to the table. “For the longest time the scene didn't make me feel comfortable to speak openly on my struggles with manic depression. There are so many people that have taken it on as a trend and stand to make light of it in order to brighten their day, but the reality is that it brings an air of shame to those that actually struggle [with it]. The ‘popularity’ of depression has made it harder for those who genuinely struggle every day to find solace in a friend or talk about their problems.” Perhaps this comes grounded in the rapidly overlapping pop punk and emo scenes, a junction which Sorority Noise calls home, but as Midwest booking agent Caitlin Drummond puts it, it may boil down to troubling apathy. “Musicians are exploiting and glorifying mental illness for whatever reason…one of the worst parts about it is that many of the musicians and bands who are labeling themselves ‘sad boys,’ selling merchandise covered in this theme and standing up in front of dozens or hundreds of impressionable fans every night joking around about killing themselves and honestly could not care about what they're doing.” This trend is beginning to recede into the background, but movements like these––as trivial as a T-shirt may seem––stunt progress towards mainstream acceptance. Having mental health issues is a very present, affecting reality some face.

Music is just as pervasive as any another form of media, and artists can use their platforms to bring fans up to speed on how these struggles can affect any listener, diagnosed or otherwise. While singer-songwriter Allison Weiss stresses that “not every artist should be required to let their fans into their personal worlds to interact in that sort of way,” she does believe that advancing the conversation regarding larger issues like these can humanize the fan-artist dynamic. “You go to a doctor for your regular physical checkup, but what about your mental checkup? Why isn’t that considered a normal thing? If more young kids saw their favorite bands talking about mental health on the regular, perhaps they wouldn’t feel so alone. That’s one of the main reasons I decided to come out publicly back in 2010. It was right around the time that the It Gets Better project was launched. There were so many LGBTQ suicides in the news and I thought, ‘Fuck. What am I doing? I could be showing these kids that they’ve got someone to look up to, who makes them feel normal,’” Weiss explains. Functioning as a role model for those in similar situations––Weiss has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and has struggled with depression––can help fans take steps to understand the patient process mental health requires. “Ten-out-of-ten is a rare feeling. It’s amazing for sure, but you can’t discount the sixes, sevens and eights, Those are wonderful places too.”

I was 16 years old when I decided that sometime, somewhere I would get a tattoo bearing the phrase “tomorrow holds such better days” from “Adam’s Song.” Bouts of depression crept into my daily routines well into college, but to brandish this lyric on my body – permanently, forever! – would mean that I was able to take the steps and support I needed to move forward. Hong feels the same way as I do, but she already bears her symbol: a tattoo of a cup overflowing with flowers. As she explains, “The way I think, how I structure my love and energy, is that instead of pouring out my energy onto others, I’m constantly pouring my love into myself so that it will overflow onto others and create a trickle effect. I think that’s a good way to think about maintaining and being good and fair to yourself. You don’t have to love, or even like yourself, but there are little ways someone can get closer to that.”

The common thread in all my columns so far is that music––especially in a scene as viscerally motivated and immediate as ours––has such reparative potential and power that we need to widen its reach and threshold for acceptance so that everyone can take part in all the things it has to offer. Not everyone has a physical disability, but everyone has a need for mental health. It’s time we understand none of us are alone in filling that need.

“Adam’s Song” ends with Mark Hoppus exalting over power chords, “The tour was over, I survived. I can’t wait ‘til I get home to pass the time in my room alone.” No matter where your sounds take you, even if it’s your bedroom after tour, know that when you exit, you have a sea of ears waiting to listen. Tomorrow does hold better days.

James Cassar is a columnist for AltPress. Follow him on Twitter.