Can Music Help With Mental Health?
By Shira Ragosin
Mental Health can affect everybody, but how does one deal with it and learn to work with it? Meet two inspiring young artists who have found creative ways to express their issues.
Meet Charlie Kerr and Katherine Fischer, two creative artists whose goal is to connect with others via the joint feelings of dealing with and combating mental health. Both recognize that mental health is something that everyone deals with. While there are many ways of coping and working through one’s issues, these two individuals found creative ways to help them understand and deal with the difficulties that depression or anxiety can cause.
Kerr and Fischer grew up in different environments - Kerr in both Vancouver and Hawaii, while Fisher in London, Ontario. Kerr was shy and sensitive, and felt unable to speak about his mental health issues as he developed throughout what he calls an “unhealthy emotional life”,during his high school years. Unable to deal with his own emotions or talk to anyone, Kerr would beat himself up and invoke self-harm as a way of dealing with his crippling panic attacks. On the other hand Fischer grew up surrounded by a city and people who shaped her understanding of what mental health was. Growing up, she says that she was lucky enough to have access to health care and an encouraging mental health community, because not everyone does. Additionally, mental health was an open topic in Fischer’s household – a topic often seen as taboo.
Yet, despite the differences in upbringing, there are similarities between the two, which led them on the path they now lead. Kerr had his start in music at the age of ten. He was never into sports like most kids his age, but music was something that he was willing to put hard workand effort into. His parents were excited that he found something to be passionate about. His guitar teacher was encouraging, seeing the promising talent in his early years.
Similarly, Fischer developed her love for music at an early age. Her dad was a songwriter so writing, playing, and listening to music was always an essential part of her home. Fischer was very active in musical theatre, partaking in shows and performing on stage. It was around the age of 13 when she began to write her own songs. While she continued musical theatre in high school, her passion for songwriting grew, and became a desire she couldn’t ignore. Fischer says: “It was what my heart was calling me to do.” She began to form her sound, playing at local cafes, fundraisers, and talent shows whenever she could.
But despite the joy which music brought to their lives, high school was a time of realization. Depression and anxiety started to surface. Kerr says that at the time he knew so little about mental health, “Everybody else feels the same amount of dread and anger and hopelessnesseveryday, [and I grew up thinking that] I’m just the worst one at dealing with it.” Fischer was 15 when she started to realize something was wrong and began showing signs of anxiety, but she kept her struggles quiet. “People didn’t really talk about mental health… I found it hard to function.”
But despite the challenges, Kerr didn’t slow down in pursuing his love for music. The 26 year old is the sole lyricist and co founder of the Vancouver garage pop band, JPNSGRLS. When the band started in 2010, they relied on live shows and battle of the bands contests to get started, and later made their musical debut in 2013 with the album The Sharkweek EP.
In his interview with VIBE105, Kerr reflected on the retrospective way in which the album helped him deal with his mental health.
“Lyrically, those where all my thoughts and feelings [on the album] that at the time I couldn’t really express. I wrote that record when I was at the height of my panic attacks and self harm. [At the time], I told people it wasn’t biographical, but listening now I realize it was.”
The album showed others how Kerr was really doing, and without realizing, music helped Kerr with his mental health and express issues he felt he otherwise didn’t have a handle on.
With his thoughts and feelings exposed by the band’s first album, the frontrunner decided to be more upfront and less cryptic. “For the next album, I tried to write a record from my own perspective, and have an entire song about everything that really, really terrified me.”
As a result, the second album, Circulation, was met with much success including two tours - in Canada and the United States, and the second one in the Europe. It was when he was traveling, and meeting fans that he realized there was support. “When I was on tour, I met up with a supporter, who knew about my mental health issues and she said: ‘You got to start singing about that for people like me.’ I realized I could use my platform reach out to others who share my issues.”
Around this time, Kerr began writing a play about mental health. Inspired by a friend who died by suicide seven years prior, he along with his co-writer, Bryce Hodgson, went through the cathartic process of writing the play called After Wrestling. It was a play about a guy who lost his best friend to death by suicide, after dealing with schizophrenia. The pair wrote, and as they did, discovered how these themes of death and suicide were more universal than they imagined. Kerr says his songwriting has helped his playwriting, and vice versa. The creative outlet allowed him to express his mental health: “It’s so much of my experience, it’s so much of my life. [Anything I wrote would be] coming from the perspective of a guy with depression and an anxiety disorder.”
For Fischer, music acts as a form of therapy, and her mental health helps her to create and shape her own sound. Originally Fischer didn’t write about her mental health in music, simply using her craft of songwriting as a type of therapeutic expression for herself. “I was afraid it was too dark and I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable.”
Speaking with VIBE105, the 21 year old shared it took her a long time to accept her illness, explaining the guilt and stigma surrounding mental health was sunk in her mind like a wound, “Once I had truly moved through those [emotions, and began to not only recognize, but accept them], I felt free enough to express my struggles.”
Fischer discusses how she started writing and expressing acceptance of her issues, after she was officially diagnosed three years ago. She adds that it was only in the last year or so that she was finally able to start writing and creating songs she felt comfortable sharing. “I just started playing those songs this summer… I don’t feel ashamed or scared anymore to be truthfully me.”
The sense of power Fischer feels she has over her illness is what strengthens her to create.
“Writing about [my struggles] gives me the power back to control and own my story, it allows me the choice to share it with the world.”
While Fischer admits that it wasn’t her goal to create this kind of music, the emotions and power she felt behind her own lyrics guided her into this journey she’s on now, and inspires the art in which she creates.
Kerr and Fischer both cite other artists who suffer from mental health as part of their inspiration to create. Donald Glover, a singer and actor like Kerr, has been known to never shy away from sharing his battles with mental illness from his fans. Kerr says: “There are so many parallels between what we do.” He states that rock legends like Kurt Cobain and John Lennon are those who have paved the way for artists like himself to be expressive, through art and creativity. Artists like Clara Hughes and Serena Ryder inspire Fischer. These two female artists shatter the stereotypes and stigmas about mental health, and the crippling effects it can cause, but neither one lets it define them or stop them from success.
What’s unique about Kerr and Fischer is their ability to accept their illness, and transform that struggle into art. It’s not easy to admit you need help, but both will agree that reaching out to others, speaking out loud about their issues, and asking for help is the greatest thing one can do. Kerr says that the interactions he has had with others who were touched by the stories he told, empowered him to stand up as someone who suffers from mental health in a very visible way. He says: “To embrace this would have been terrifying in previous years,” a feeling that Fischer also comments is what prevents others from reaching out. On the other hand Fischer says we hide our problems because we are afraid of failure, or the stigma that surrounds them.
Kerr and Fischer continue to struggle with mental health, but work every day towards their dreams. Not only do they refuse to let their illness stop them, but they work to embrace it,encouraging others to create and connect with others who feel the same way.
With mental health there is still a lot that no one understands, but what both artists recognize is that art allows you to make your own statement, and realize that you are not alone in the world.