In Wake of Suicides, Backline Seeks to Connect Musicians to Help
Poet Maya Angelou once said, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” For so many, that statement is gospel. For some, though, the music is the loneliness, rather than the refuge from it.
This summer, the roots music community lost two of its heroes who struggled with their mental health. Mandolin master Jeff Austin passed away on June 24 and guitar great Neal Casal died by suicide on Aug. 26. Last year, the music world was shaken by the loss of Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison. The day after Casal’s death, guitarist Deren Ney took to Facebook at 4 a.m. and poured out his heart for all the world to read in an attempt to convey how isolating and isolated the life of a touring musician can be, even from other musicians: “We see each other for sometimes five minutes once a year, but love each other like lifelong friends. We watch each other go through ups and downs. We truly care about each other, but from afar. We could hang out when we aren’t working, but that would risk finding out it isn’t like it seems or, even if it is, knowing that, once tour comes around, we won’t see each other for a long time anyway. It’s a loss either way. So we don’t want to get too close. Especially to anyone who reflects us back to ourselves.”
The post struck a nerve, reprinted at No Depression and shared widely. “The reaction to it … it wasn’t just about ‘how sad for Neal,’ it was so many people saying, ‘Yeah, I feel this. This is what I’m going through,’” Ney says. “I think that was the first time I realized that this isn’t just a thing that I’m a little embarrassed to be talking about. This is something that’s totally widespread in the music business, specifically, which is so focused on the pageantry of it all that you don’t feel like you can stop and say to people, ‘Hey, I’m having a panic attack. Can we go behind that tent over there to finish this conversation?’”
Ney received thousands of Facebook requests and hundreds of messages that he says he was “utterly ill-equipped to deal with.” To start, though, he set up a private Facebook group and invited musicians into the safe space to talk about things that only they can fully understand. As an example, Ney notes, one musician posted about an upcoming Red Rocks gig because they were unsure how to hold, for themselves, the personal thrill of the show while having dozens of friends and family wanting to share a piece of the experience with them. “There are things like that you can’t really talk about in that many other places without it striking people strangely,” says Ney, a singer-songwriter and the lead guitarist for Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, with a chuckle.
In the weeks after Casal’s death, Ney also connected with Hilary Gleason, Tory Pittarelli, and Kendall Deflin Corso of Level, a consulting firm that connects businesses and bands with philanthropic projects. Together, they recruited more than 50 music business professionals to join a series of conference calls that examined what was going on in the community and how to foster better circumstances by bridging resources that exist with ones that should. What emerged was a new online resource: Backline.care, a website that serves as a hub of pre-existing mental health and wellness resources for musicians. Backline also can connect musicians to case workers who can assess their needs and connect them with providers, with a commitment to respond within 24 hours.
When Backline launched on Oct. 7, Corso was installed as the interim executive director. Her longtime involvement in the jamband community gave her an understanding of the rigors of tour life. “You could have no previous mental health issues, then go on the road and experience the highest high of stepping on stage and performing and receiving the energy of thousands of people, then the lowest low of being alone in your bunk on a tour bus, night after night,” she explains. “That’s certainly taxing, even if you have the healthiest brain around.”
To get the ball rolling, Backline has partnered with organizations willing to share services, facilities, and the like and made them more easily accessible to touring musicians.
“The responses have been overwhelming on the clinical side of people reaching out for help,” Corso notes, adding, “but also on the side of venues, managers, artists, yoga instructors, meditation guides, doctors, therapists, and psychologists who want to offer their services, either donating time or resources or offering up a leadership story, because 50 percent of our purpose is changing the narrative of mental health in the music industry and empowering people to feel like it’s okay to talk about it.”
For his part in Backline’s development, Ney insisted it be so simple that someone in an immediate crisis or a drunken stupor could just go to the site and get connected to help. “The crucial thing, I thought, was that you needed to have case workers, because as soon as you have somebody to talk to, it makes it a whole lot different,” he explains.
One of the people on the planning calls was Zack Borer, a licensed therapist who used to be touring musician. As Backline’s clinical director, he’s building the case management side of the group. When people in need contact the site, Borer handles the initial assessments of issues, insurance, financial resources, etc. and connects them with proper care within 24 hours.
According to Corso, one of Backline’s long-term goals is to create a certification program for licensed therapists to be trained to work specifically with touring musicians. Martin Earley, singer and guitarist with the Ballroom Thieves, knows firsthand how valuable that would be to someone going through mental health struggles related to a job that causes them to be away from home for months on end.
“When we had our worst times, we were just relying on regular outlets at home — therapists, doctors, friends, and family — to just talk to,” Earley says. “But one of the things that gets in the way is that you have to explain the lifestyle to people first. You have to make people understand what it’s like before you can actually reach any sort of betterment. And that can be frustrating because sometimes people can be a little dismissive because this lifestyle is glamorized everywhere else.”
Earley likes what he sees on the Backline site, but sees it as what it is — a step in the right direction. “Obviously, they’re just getting started, but I’d love to see all sorts of things being covered,” he says. “The big ones, obviously, are depression and anxiety, and so many artists struggle with those. But there are all kinds of different conditions and neuro-divergent issues in your brain. I’d like to see it all covered, in one way or another, so that people who are struggling with things other than depression and anxiety can also find help there.”
Earley notes that eating and sleeping well are two of the most important factors and also two of the most challenging aspects of life on the road. He also cites meditation and communication as keys to success. Backline gets that and, as Corso explains, wants to help musicians create structure in an unstructured life, whether that’s with support groups, talk therapy, or other modalities. “Exercise and diet play a huge part in that, too, so it doesn’t just stop at brain things and mental health therapy,” she says. “It goes back to providing routine and structure and healthy options backstage. It’s not sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It doesn’t have to be that way. Touring is hard and we want to support a healthy lifestyle.”
As a touring musician himself, Ney recognizes the role those things play in overall health, but he sees another absolutely crucial component to the conversation — money. On the conference calls, he chimed in, “’Do you know how much $700 a month would change the lives of 90 percent of the musicians that I know?’ We’re not talking about tons of money. We’re talking about dental bills, making sure they don’t get behind on their mortgage. We’re talking basic stuff.
“People talk about healthier food, access to health care, and all that stuff,” Ney continues. “But everybody pretty much says the same thing … which is money. I don’t know how to make that part work, but part of what I’m hoping with Backline is that we can turn it into some charitable works to help fill those gaps. I just hope that all these companies who have no problem making a Bud Light cost 50 cents more every summer could just find a way, whether it’s donating to Backline or some other fund, to really help.”
With Backline, Corso and company aim to identify these stressors, normalize these conversations, and streamline these practices to the point that they will become part of the contracts that label, managers, and agents offer to musicians so that they may truly thrive. Supporting society’s artists is a vital and valiant mission to undertake to that music can remain a refuge for audiences and artists alike.
If you’re thinking about suicide, or are worried about a loved one, please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or open an online chat here.
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