By putting their hearts on their album sleeves, musicians are able to forge special connections with their fans.
When they recall their achy-breaky hearts, we work through our lost loves. When they wish they had Jessie’s Girl, we start learning the blues. And when they share their struggles with mental health, it becomes less taboo to admit that perhaps we could use some help, too.
“Like millions of Americans, I am living with mental illness,” announced pop star Demi Lovato before her performance at the Democratic National Convention in June. “But I am lucky. I had the resources and support to get treatment at a top facility. Unfortunately, too many Americans from all walks of life don’t get help, whether they fear the stigma or cannot afford treatment.”
So when Lovato plays the Minnesota State Fair grandstand on Wednesday, she’ll arrive with helping hands. No, it isn’t extra backup singers or a new pyrotechnics team. It’s a free mental health workshop. As of late June, Lovato has been offering the group counseling sessions in conjunction with each of her concert dates. So far she has convened about 30 workshops in cities across the United States.
Each workshop is hosted by Lovato’s personal wellness coach, Mike Bayer, CEO of CAST Centers, a Los Angeles-based organization offering mental health and wellness services. The Disney Channel alumna met Bayer when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010. She’s been upfront about her struggles ever since starting treatment with CAST Centers — she tweets about it, she leads group events, she started speaking publicly about her mental health challenges.
Bayer eventually sold Lovato on the touring workshop idea because it “works with Demi’s brand,” he explained by phone, “which is about being an advocate, inspiring other people, helping the underdog and creating a bigger change.”
Workshops are always held in the same place as Lovato’s concerts — the local session will take place at the grandstand just before Lovato’s 7 p.m. concert with Nick Jonas.
You don’t need a concert ticket to attend the workshop. You do, however, need to make it through an online vetting process (applications are available at castcenters ontour.com).
CAST Centers funds the hourlong events featuring support-group-like activities. For example, attendees might be asked to turn to nearby strangers and express what they’re thankful for. Inspirational speeches are another workshop fixture. Past speakers have included basketball player Metta World Peace and suicide prevention activist Kevin Hines. Lovato and Jonas are not paid to participate but, yes, they usually make an appearance, as well.
Honeydogs frontman Adam Levy is another example of musician turned mental health advocate.
Minneapolis-based Levy lost his son, Daniel Levy, to suicide in 2012. In November 2015 he released an album called “Naubinway” as a tribute to his son.
Writing and singing about the tragedy wasn’t brave, insisted Levy in a recent call — it was therapeutic. “The more I talked, the more connection I felt with others who shared their stories.”
In addition to juggling his music career, Levy now devotes considerable energy to speaking at mental health conferences nationwide. He gave one of his first lectures at the Yale School of Psychiatry last fall. He spoke earlier this month at the PACER Symposium About Children & Young Adults With Mental Health and Learning Disabilities in Minneapolis. Next up is a September conference for the Minnesota Association of Community Mental Health Programs. He feels these engagements honor his son while helping other families in need.
Do musicians have a special gift when it comes to mental health advocacy? Levy thinks so. He argues that music evokes trust and emotions in ways other art forms just don’t.
“A lot of people see musicians as [people] who live their art,” said Levy. “They talk about their own experience, and so people have these expectations about the truth and authenticity in the messages.”
Like a good playlist, artists and fans can disburse these messages to those who need them most. Levy recalled one parent who used the “Naubinway” record to reach a suicidal son. The music is what coaxed the teen from the ledge, the parent told Levy.
We’re used to celebrities offering sensationalized health advice without empirical proof — think anti-vaccine activist and actress Jenny McCarthy.
What’s less common for celebrities is addressing mental health — particularly to young people — and creating a safer, more inclusive community around the issue.
Tulane University Prof. Janet Schwartz, for one, is impressed by Lovato’s and Levy’s efforts.
Schwartz studies how consumers navigate the health care marketplace. And she sees a lot of value in listening to musicians talk about their struggles, particularly for young people with stigmatized mental disorders.
These young people tend to alienate friends and family members, explained Schwartz. Or perhaps they feel embarrassed about calling a therapist. Yet they can be helped when a favorite celebrity acts “as a role model who not just performs and functions, but is extraordinary,” said Schwartz.
What’s more, Schwartz agrees with Levy’s assertion that musicians are especially suited to mental health work. People come together for concerts, she said — not for movies. “When you go to a concert, this is a real person performing and this is who they are,” said Schwartz. That’s why what Lovato and Levy are doing has so much potential.
Jamie Mueller, a 22-year-old from Kossuth County, Iowa, will be in the audience for Lovato’s State Fair concert. And just before it, she’ll attend the free workshop. She was accepted after submitting a short essay on her desire for self-improvement.
Mueller started listening to Lovato’s music when she was about 13. She started suffering from depression shortly after high school. She said she felt less alone when she learned about Lovato’s bipolar diagnosis. Here was a high-functioning person who was managing to hide her mental health problems — just like me, thought Mueller.
“It helped a lot because I didn’t let anyone in my family know,” she explained. But Lovato provided Mueller with a model of perseverance. “If she can get through it,” said Mueller, “then anybody can.”