My wife and I came to know Kelley Gibson, bit by bit, through his father Eric Gibson, who happens to be the older half of The Gibson Brothers, one of the premier bands in bluegrass. Kelley is 19 years old. His life has not been easy, and it has often been difficult. It’s been a struggle to fit in, find friends, make and keep relationships. He finds a measure of peace and understanding when, like his father, he picks up his guitar or mandolin and makes music. Then, he finds ways to express himself by writing songs and performing them for his family or a small but growing audience. Kelley is one of the sweetest, most gentle people we know, and he has a mental illness.
Eric and Leigh Gibson grew up on a small dairy farm near the Canadian border in northernmost New York State. Looking south from their hard-scrabble dairy farm, they could see the Adirondack Mountains rising, while also separating them from much of the hustle and bustle of The Empire State. They worked, went to school and church, and learned country and then bluegrass music. They started singing in church and then, when they started to realize their voices blended well and that their passion for music was demanding, they began reaching out further. Both went to college at Plattsburgh State University and majored in English, but decided their future lay in music.
After 20 years of hard work, hard traveling, writing, and creating, they became an “instant” success when they won the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Entertainer of the Year Award in 2012 and again the following year. Even before that, though, they lived much of their lives on the road, singing at festivals and in concert halls across the country, mostly on weekends. Meanwhile, back home, Kelley was struggling with his mental illness and his father Eric was struggling with him. And his wife Corina, as Eric says, “is a true hero in this story, our family’s undisputed rock.”
Kelley began having difficulties in school, which were often met with derision when what he really needed was understanding. He became withdrawn and increasingly less communicative. His parents sought help from psychologists and psychiatrists. As so often happens these days, the response was medication, followed by more medication. Meanwhile, Eric, and Corina – a speech pathologist working in local schools – sought help for an increasingly unpredictable and lonely young man.
Eventually, they came upon Dr. .Jim Hudziak, professor in the departments of Child Psychiatry, Medicine, and Pediatrics at the University of Vermont. Hudziak looks at kids with mental illness differently. He looks for their strengths first. So, rather than seeing Kelley as someone with bipolar disorder, he saw a complicated kid with a large upside. He undertook a series of tests, including brain scans, and in the end thought Kelley was struggling with high functioning autism, an affliction which must be treated in a much different way.
Slowly Dr. Hudziak and the Gibsons, who emphasized including Kelley in the process, began removing medication and replacing it with a healthier diet, structured and vigorous exercise, mindful meditation practice, and, always, the opportunity to make music. As a result, Kelley’s improvement has been remarkable, although it’s still a work in progress.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Hudziak took Kelley and Eric to a psychiatric professional meeting, where Kelley talked about his struggles and then played and sang some of his songs, along with his dad. He received multiple standing ovations from the assemblage of doctors, caregivers, and others struggling with mental illness.
Kelley has a lot of fun and love in his life and is happy overall despite his struggles. Part of why Dr. Hudziak’s program is working so well is due to Kelley’s positive attitude. According to Eric, “He never lets up, never takes a day off. He plays music, exercises, meditates, reads, works with his plants, takes pictures … he said to me two days ago, ‘Dad, I love my life.’” Kelley is filled with a verve for doing what he loves and is interested in growing stronger, relishing the changes he’s made in his life and the reinforcement he’s receiving.
Sean Ackerman is a filmmaker as well as a child psychiatry fellow on Dr. Hudziak’s team at UVM Medical Center. Before attending medical school, he was a filmmaking student at the famed Tisch School of Arts at New York University. These days, Ackerman is combining his two great passions, film and promoting mental health, by making a film about Kelley’s struggles with autism and the role that music can play in finding peace and creating the improved communication so necessary for people on the autism spectrum.
Eric and Corina Gibson are shy and private people. This might seem strange for a man whose life is lived partly in public, and who seems so at ease performing and interacting with his fans, but it’s quite true. While Kelley’s plight has been constantly in their minds and hearts, Eric has been reluctant to talk about the problem, fearing that such publicity would damage Kelley’s hopes for improvement.
When Ackerman first came to the Gibsons with his proposal for the film (titled The Kelley Gibson Story), they struggled to align the goals of the project with their need for privacy and their desire to aid Kelley’s development. Finally, they decided to leave it to him. “I want to help,” was Kelley’s response, and so the project was initiated.
As of this writing, The Kelley Gibson Story had 24 days remaining in a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter, with $30,000 more to raise. With any luck, the film will be funded and will help spread the word about the role music can play in helping improve mental health in general, as well as the life of one particularly talented young man.