Kristen Becker, Comedian
YOU GOT THIS Guest Editor Speaks Up about Depression, Creativity and Smashing the Patriarchy
I didn’t realize I was creative until I hit my twenties. I spent most of my childhood playing team sports. I went to practices, learned proper techniques for strengthening muscles and getting the most out of my body. I was taught to practice hard to be the best. If I had an injury, I was reminded of the importance of rest. Playing while injured could lead to long term problems, how would that effect my game? I needed to consider my future.
Athletics are steeped in self care. Growing up an athlete in Louisiana, we stretched. We alternated legs and upper body workouts so as to not wear muscle down. Gatorade and orange slices were their own food group.
Fast forward to a decade later and I’m a comedian touring the country in a 1996 conversion van getting paid in PBR’s and pretty ladies. I found stand up comedy not too long after a career ending sports injury and the rest, is history (a large chunk of which I barely remember). Anyone who has spent life as a performer on the road knows that in the beginning, you live and die by fast food dollar menus, free beers, and your hopes and dreams. There is no creativity coach for us performers. No one pulled me aside and said, “pit stop and grab some fruit and hummus and it’ll be about the same $$ as a Happy Meal.” No one mentioned that my brain is the muscle I need to perform comedy, and I should tend to it a bit. Not one manager at any of the hundred some odd bars I played ever said, “you know alcohol is a depressant, right?” as he was handing my PBR. Of course not! Then he might have to pay me in actual money.
What is my point? My point is that performers must take care of each other. That we need the brilliance of our creative community to shine brighter now than ever before and mental health is a huge part of that. Self care has to climb to the top of the list. Creatives have to understand their worth, which gets tricky in a world that sells $200 tickets to football and artists are “pushing it” to ask for $10 a head.
I’m excited to participate in the You Got This outreach, helping fellow creatives build mentally whole and happy selves through conscientious self care. Then we can go smash the patriarchy. My creative friends are the most passionate and intelligent people we know, and they got that way against all odds. Imagine what we can accomplish at our best?
Kathryn Rose Wood, Singer/Songwriter
YOU GOT THIS Guest Editor Copes With Grief and Depression
On March 26, 2015, my 19-year-old brother, Preston, died by suicide. His death seemed to come out of nowhere, for my family and myself. The storm of emotions in trying to process Preston’s death were wide-ranging and profound: shock, anger and sadness weaved in and out with confusion, guilt, helplessness and so many other emotions I hadn’t experienced in this intense way before. Though I initially “held it together well,” continuing with my natural productivity, active in my work, creative, and social communities, it was mere months before the pain, confusion, sadness, anger and trauma sweltering subconsciously took over my very being.
While most know that it’s not easy to navigate mental health issues, much less speak about them, caring for someone with mental illness is equally challenging. I am an excellent example of that – I spent several years working as a clinical music therapist in mental health settings and constantly reiterated the importance of advocating for one’s mental health needs. I knew the importance of self-care, therapy, emotional intelligence and awareness…and yet, when I started experiencing my own feelings of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal depression, I failed to voice my massive need for help. I continued shouldering the intense pain and darkness, allowing it to take all the life out of me, for far too long. I was self-sabotaging, losing some of the most important relationships and opportunities I’d ever had.
The few times I chose to confide about my mental state, the responses varied from excessively sympathetic to unrealistically positive. While I certainly don’t fault anyone for being unsure how to handle a loved one’s admission of mental illness, an understanding response can make an incredible difference in how the struggling individual chooses to approach their illness and treatment. I was fortunate to encounter others who were in the same state I was, and found encouragement in this empathy, but just because someone hasn’t experienced mental illness before doesn’t mean they cannot be educated in comforting words.
Ellie Sanders, The Darkest Road: Confronting Suicide in the Music Business
YOU GOT THIS Guest Editor Shares Her First-Hand Account of Suicide On The Road
For us left behind in the aftermath of suicide, bad behavior is just the beginning. Discord where before was peace, emotional eating and drinking to excess, and the anger. Oh, the anger. Anger that’s deeply-seated, unpredictable, shameful, and always ready with a plague of “what-ifs” that begin the moment your eyes register a new day and move with you until they close. These are only the relatively superficial ripple effects. Inside you, the hollow, bottomless cavern of an irreparably broken heart, days like underwater night, a place you’ll always revisit through anxiety even after slow healing begins down the line and memories supplant what would have been shared experiences.
Some take up the mantle of the zealous memorial torch-bearer, attempting to harness tragedy into legacy. Others never speak of it again. Mostly though, at least at first, we remember through sub-conscience actions – the pain we express outward at others, punishment onto ourselves. Sometimes inspiration strikes as if it’s contagious.
Only a fortunate few will escape the trauma of suicide, but that luck is not meant to last as we reach epidemic levels in our communities. Statistically, artists and armed services veterans* have nearly the same level of suicides per 100,000 people. In a top- five ranking by profession, the CDC sites artists, musicians, and athletes grouped together in third place, and production professionals sit in fifth place**. For some, the invasive voices start well in advance, maybe were always present, and the battle finally rages out. For others, especially in our touring community, rootlessness becomes too existentially heavy and we fall victim to unchecked depression, stress, enablers, and the fallibility of fragile self-control.
For us, our trusty tour manager of 11 years, our beacon, extremely distraught by the loss of a mentor (an artist who passed naturally though in front of his audience) then inspired by the suicide of musician Chris Cornell, took his life June 4, 2017. When he told us he wanted to leave the band, we assumed it was because his own band had secured an opening slot on a prominent national tour and was getting a second album together. We never imagined we’d be heading back out on the road two weeks later without him in the mortal realm. His thought process at least as far as we can only imagine boiled down to, “I can escape too and why not, I’m already alone.” Yet he wasn’t. None of us are. It’s hard enough at times. Maybe the rewards aren’t as apparent or forthcoming, we’re not getting returns on our output, our light is dim, but we cannot grant ourselves permission to stop fighting as we would not allow the same from our families, friends, loved ones, or colleagues.
We need to be honest with ourselves and our friends and families when we need picked up and how be it by meds, app-based counseling and therapy when we’re on the road, writing, or any other healthy release. There’s something that’ll work for each individual’s situation as long as self-preservation instincts allow us to ask, to reach out. Thankfully, organizations like the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic are out here every single day fighting for each and every life, but they can’t turn suicide into a non-option without community support either. It’s understood everyone a universe unto themselves, but within our universe are the stars of everyone we encounter, some in our orbit, some off in the distance, but we are all reliant on each other’s light.
Background on the photo: Matt Reynolds was our tour manager but he was also a budding musician who performed every year at our festival, the Dark Star Jubilee. This photo was taken almost exactly three years ago in 2016, and the Jubilee in 2017 was the last time we saw him. He’s the redhead at the piano and behind me is Dark Star Orchestra bassist Skip Vangelas and stage manager Nick Tiano.
Resources: *en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_veteran_suicide, **www.registerednursing.org/suicide-rates-profession/
James Blake, Musician and Songwriter
James Blake Lends his voice to YOU GOT THIS Suicide Prevention Panel at PAMA 2018
James Blake Speaks Out on Managing ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ & Staying Healthy on the Road – taken from a Billboard article by Andy Hermann
“There is this myth that you have to be anxious to be creative, that you have to be depressed to be a genius,” he said during PAMA panel.
A month after taking to Twitter to criticize the media’s description of his work as “sad boy music,” Mercury Prize-winning singer-songwriter James Blake spoke at the annual symposium of the Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA) on Sunday at Chapman University in Orange County, Calif., to discuss his own experience with depression and anxiety and to encourage artists struggling with similar issues not to suffer in silence.
Speaking as part of a panel called “You Got This: Managing the Suicide Crisis in the Arts Population,” Blake, 29, spoke openly about his depression leading to “suicidal thoughts” while on tour early in his career.
“I was taken away from normal life essentially at an age where I was half-formed,” said the London-born musician, who achieved international renown with sparsely soulful tracks like “Limit to Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream” when he was just 21. On the road, he explained, “your connection to other people becomes surface level. So if you were only in town for one day and someone asked you how you are, you go into the good stuff…which generally doesn’t involve how anxious you feel [or] how depressed you feel.”
Blake added that unhealthy eating habits, a common peril for touring musicians, exacerbated his mental struggles. “I would say that chemical imbalance due to diet and the deterioration of my health was a huge, huge factor in my depression and eventual suicidal thoughts,” he said. “I developed [dietary] intolerances that would lead to existential depression on a daily basis. I would eat a certain thing and then all day I would feel like there was just no point.”
PAMA began in the 1980s as part of the Aspen Music Festival and was originally focused on health issues among classical musicians. It has expanded its mission in recent years to include outreach to musicians and performing artists from all genres and disciplines. So when Blake offered to participate in this year’s symposium, PAMA board member and program chair Jennie Morton jumped at the chance to include his perspective.
“He’s very passionate about getting information out there to musicians,” Morton said. “And he’s very passionate that the artist’s viewpoint is shared in any discussion about this and that it’s not just coming from medical, healthcare [and] psychological practitioners.”
The “You Got This” panel addressed what many studies have suggested is an underreported epidemic of mental health issues among working musicians. A 2016 U.K. study reported that more than 70 percent of musicians surveyed had experienced panic attacks or high levels of anxiety, and one of the panelists, clinical and performance psychologist Patrick Gannon, addressed what he called an “emerging epidemic of suicide” (45,000 in 2016 in the U.S. alone) that disproportionately affects musicians, among whom the suicide rate is three times higher than the national average.
According to the experts at PAMA, there are many reasons why musicians and other creatives are more predisposed to mental health issues and suicide than their peers: the physical and mental demands of the craft, lack of access to healthcare, and a culture that romanticizes substance abuse as a symbol of artistic free-spiritedness. There is even a growing body of evidence suggesting that there may be a neurological link between creativity and certain kinds of mental illness. “People with the capacity for divergent thought — which is kind of the definition of creativity — they have vulnerabilities in their psychological makeup that can predispose them to issues of increased anxiety [and] depression,” Morton said.
Speaking from his own experience, Blake cautioned against conflating creativity with psychological suffering. “There is this myth that you have to be anxious to be creative, that you have to be depressed to be a genius,” he said during the panel. “I can truly say that anxiety has never helped me create. And I’ve watched it destroy my friends’ creative process too.”
For Blake, help came in the form of EMDR therapy — an experimental treatment that uses physical triggers like rapid eye movement to “reprocess” traumatic memories, which “really broke the back of all the traumas and repressions that had led me to depression in the first place,” he said. He also credited the positive influence of his girlfriend, with whom he lives in Los Angeles. With her help, Blake said, he was able to sever ties with people who were enabling his unhealthy behavior and manage his career in a more sustainable way. “Honestly, a lot of catharsis just came in telling lots of people to fuck off,” he said. “And saying no. Saying no to constant touring. No [amount of] money will ever be enough.”
He is among the artists speaking out now because, “we’ve reached a critical point,” he added. “We are the generation that’s watched several other generations of musicians turn to drugs and turn to excess and coping mechanisms that have destroyed them. And there are so many high-profile people recently who’ve taken their own lives. So we, I think, have a responsibility to talk about it and to remove the stigma.”