Recent years have dealt Brian Joseph a bad hand: a cancer diagnosis, a divorce, the loss of a significant relationship and losing grip on some career opportunities.
Now that he’s cancer-free and seeing a therapist, Joseph’s on a mission to spread mental health awareness through music.
Joseph is an Eau Claire-based music producer who’s worked on records by such recognizable names as Paul Simon, Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, Phil Cook, Ani DiFranco, and Jenny Lewis. But for all his accomplishments, the black dog of depression crept its way into his psyche until his life felt unrecognizable.
“I was having suicidal thoughts. My depression came to a place where it was very needed to seek help — professional help, help from my family, help from my community,” Joseph said. “That meant actually throwing up the flag and admitting that I wasn’t well, which I hadn’t done prior to that point in my life.”
Raising a flag for help surprised Joseph. Within his own community in western Wisconsin, friends, family and professionals introduced him to life-saving resources he hadn’t known were there. As his own black dog retreated, he learned that, while it’s easy to feel alone while suffering, he wasn’t. All he had to do was ask for help.
But asking for help is sometimes the hardest part when you’re stuck in the mire of depression. It’s part of why Joseph is using the power of good old-fashioned rock-and-roll to elevate community resource centers.
On Oct. 29, Joseph’s concert “Forms” will take place at the Eau Claire Masonic Temple with live performances from Haley, Gash, Hemma and D. Janakey. Proceeds will support local organizations and, once music enthusiasts enter the space, they’ll have the opportunity to interact with an on-site art therapist, receive coupons for discounts from BetterHelp Professional Counseling, donate old coats and clothing to the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry and listen to a crescendo of melodies and moods from local bands.
Joseph said the DNA for the show got into his system after doing some work with Feist, who was premiering an intimate performance residency called “Multitudes” last summer in Europe. The close-quartered setting, which removed barriers between the performer and her fans, was a “portal” for Joseph, who said the idea of the show “broke my brain and my heart open and showed me this incredible vulnerability and the use of the physical space in a way I hadn’t seen before.”
The style of the show is certainly unique. At 7:30 p.m., D. Janakey will play a set Joseph described as “old country-style songs.” Near the end of his set, a door will open and lights will be aimed at Hemma, a cue to listeners to move to the next room. Because Joseph is a producer, he will coordinate the sounds to bleed into each other as listeners walk freely from room to room in the space.
“Once the music starts, it doesn’t stop,” Joseph said. “I don’t want to give away too much, but there will be an unconventional space to view Gash, and then two doors will open and people will be able to sit in concentric circles around Haley.”
Ticket proceeds will be going to the Bolton Refuge House, a nonprofit that offers a variety of services to assist people experiencing domestic violence, with venue rental and drink sales going to the Upper Wisconsin Children’s Dyslexia Center.
“I’m hoping to create a space that is open to have joy and fun this evening, but also to really, truly normalize the fact that, if you’re not OK, it’s really alright to say something, you know?” Joseph said.
‘It’s really hard to admit when you’re struggling’
Joseph isn’t the only professional in the music industry to elevate mental health. Musicians from every genre of music, from Megan Thee Stallion to Them Coulee Boys, Selena Gomez to Marcus Mumford have shared mental health resources that are culturally specific, accessible and often free.
At a time when the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force’s recommendations to screen for anxiety and depression in adults under 65 and children over 6 is converging with a nationwide therapy shortage, direct resources to mental health care can help during those long, drawn-out waitlists to see a therapist. In this way, musicians are using their platforms to destigmatize mental health struggles. Singing in the common language of pain is its own balm.
Shanda Wells, clinical psychologist and behavioral health manager for primary care at UW Health, applauds the theme of the event.
Wells manages a team of mental health clinicians who meet with patients during their primary care visits. It’s important that they meet patients where they are, rather than putting the onus on patients to start their mental health journeys from scratch. Bringing awareness and resources to a music venue can have a similar effect.
“Most people actually present to their primary care doctors with mental health problems. They don’t go on their own, and find a therapist or psychiatrist,” Wells said. “I think that also speaks to the fact that mental health is part of health. Our brain is not cut off from the rest of our body.”
That more public figures are coming forward to talk about their mental health journeys is a big deal, Wells said. Thirty years ago, with the exception of Princess Diana, broaching the topic of mental illness wouldn’t have been appropriate, Wells said.
“I just remember growing up, how pivotal Princess Diana was ― going to homeless shelters and sitting alongside people who were HIV positive or had AIDS. That was groundbreaking in the ’80s,” Wells said. “I think now, Megan Thee Stallion is our Princess Diana.”
Megan Thee Stallion recently launched a mental health campaign called “Bad B—-s Have Bad Days Too” with resources that link to different therapy platforms, crisis lines and culturally specific counseling resources for Black women, Black men, Indigenous people and LGBTQ of color.
Haley McCallum (formerly known as Haley Bonar), the musician behind Haley who is playing at the Eau Claire Masonic Temple, has struggled with anxiety and depression since she was a teenager. While she’s been in and out of therapy since then, it wasn’t something she talked about.
“I didn’t really want people to know that I was going to therapy, because that has this narrative of being weak or crazy, especially for women,” said McCallum. “It’s really hard to admit when you’re struggling because (women) have to work a lot harder at presenting a strong, confident front, especially in the music industry, which is mostly men.”
McCallum has written songs that address her struggles with postpartum depression and addiction, subjects that highlight the swirling isolation, childhood memories and traumas that make so many of us the messy humans we are.
That type of honesty in subject matter has a significant ripple effect for listeners, Wells said, which can be a double-edged sword if it takes you somewhere in your past you’re not prepared to face. Biologically speaking, she said, music sits in a part of the brain that’s closely tied to memories.
“That can be good and bad, depending on the memory,” Wells said. “But we are able to more easily access things like happy memories, or get more in touch with our feelings. That’s why music is so universal. Everyone experiences music in an emotional way.”
Hannah Hebl, the singer and songwriter behind Hemma, said she was excited to be invited to perform at Forms. She’s drawn to music during her darkest periods and knows music can function as a collective for grief, anguish, joy and every complexity in between.
As a performer, Hebl said she’s been approached after shows by people who had broken down in tears during her set. It’s rare, she said, to find places that feel safe enough to comfortably cry, she said.
“It’s so mysterious how songs come through and what they reveal. It feels so much bigger than me,” Hebl said. “David Lynch talks about all of us being like radio antenna, and we’re just like set to different frequencies, and we’re picking up things that are just traveling through the ether.”
How donations can help
Bolton Refuge House has seen an influx in service needs since the pandemic struck. Specialists at Bolton Refuge House are treating people fleeing domestic violence as far away as South Dakota and working more frequently with seniors in need of refuge amid the surge in horror stories, according to Mainhia Yang, volunteer coordinator at Bolton Refuge House.
Yang said the shelter has treated clients who have been tortured and held captive by abusers, clients who have been lured with the prospect of money or a job only to be entrapped by their abusers, and clients, especially high-risk adults, who couldn’t form healthy relationships in the face of the pandemic.
Donations support Bolton Refuge House’s legal advocacy team, which aids in working on restraining orders and giving survivors support in the courts, and health care advocacy, which gives rape survivors a confidential resource as they undergo SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examination) exams. Donations also benefit its 15-room shelter and the on-site mental health counselor.
“We only have one (mental health counselor) right now. If you ask me, I think we need at least two or three. There’s such a high need in the community,” Yang said. “Our grant is only enough to cover one. Hopefully in the future, I would like to see a couple more.”
Joseph, the organizer of Forms, has helped raise money for Bolton Refuge House before. A few years back, his friend, a painter, lost his 5-year-old to an inoperable brain tumor. The grief shocked him into a new plane. Instead of falling deeper into insurmountable pain, he and Joseph organized an event to sell his paintings. They raised $25,000.
“He gave every single penny to the Bolton Refuge House,” Joseph said. “Forms is another collaboration with (Bolton Refuge House). It won’t be the size of that last donation, but it’s a gesture to say ‘I still believe in you and your mission.'”
Asked what she would do with an endless pot of money, Wells from UW Health pointed to the power of preventative mental health care for children. Preventative care, she said, is hard to prove, but the research that does exist emphasizes its efficacy.
“We know this stuff works. It’s just being able to get people behind it to fund it,” Wells said. “And, especially in times like this, where everyone is so stressed out, if I had my way, I would put it into prevention and treating people where they need it.”
Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Central Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.