Texas Music Focuses on Mental Health Awareness Month

Daniel Johnston's query isn't just an iconic work of art, it's also a simple mental health check and a question we can ask one another during these difficult times.
Daniel Johnston's query isn't just an iconic work of art, it's also a simple mental health check and a question we can ask one another during these difficult times. Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Mental health experts are predicting a second pandemic of sorts, an epidemic born from coronavirus worries and lockdowns.

“Some experts are calling this the world’s greatest psychological experiment, for which we will surely pay a significant price. All indications are the coming of a second pandemic, a significant increase in those suffering from mental health issues,” said Renae Vania Tomczak, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Greater Houston. “Just as individuals with pre-existing physical illness are more likely to get physically ill from the coronavirus, people whose mental health is compromised are at greater risk of experiencing worsening mental illness as a result of the coronavirus, no matter what their mental illness may be.”

These matters are always on the minds of organizations like MHA of Greater Houston, which focuses on preventive services and intervention through integrated services for folks struggling with mental illness in a service area which includes Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty, Waller, Chambers and Austin counties. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the stakes have rarely been higher in promoting  awareness, educating the public and erasing the stigma of mental illness. Some organizations have turned to musicians to help deliver these key messages.

This week, National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Houston is airing "Sounds of Hope," a benefit concert starring several Houston performers. Co-hosted by Grammy-winning singer Billy Dorsey and David Settle of Radio One, the concert includes performances by artists like former American Idol contestant Vincent Powell and Fox 26 anchor Ivory Hecker.  The show live streamed last Thursday but remains available for on-demand viewings this week. All the money raised from its $12 ticket donations and merchandise sales will help the local chapter with NAMIWalks, the national organization's major fund raiser.

“We’re the grassroots leader in mental health for caregivers and for persons living with mental health difficulties,” said Neal Sarahan, executive director of NAMI Greater Houston. We offer classes, we offer support groups, we offer a warm line for calls of any nature on health concerns. We provide training programs in the schools and in the jails and throughout the Houston community for the mental health community to up its game in understanding what’s going on, understanding their children, understanding their mates and learning coping mechanisms that do not light the fire of mental illness but soothe and show us all a way to go forward.”

According to NAMI, 43 million American adults experience mental illness annually. Open communication is improving but there’s still shame and stigma attached to these issues. Having known and respected artists can only help promote NAMI's entirely free, peer-driven programs, Sarahan said. One of its services is a warmline, open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays. A call to 713-970-4483 can put people in touch with NAMI volunteers or employees who offer emotional support and intervention information.

Sarahan said calls to the line have doubled since the pandemic began. As residents face economic challenges and the recent lifting of bans on evictions, Sarahan believes those calls may ultimately triple or quadruple.

“We believe the pandemic is going to be followed by a tsunami of mental health crisis and discord,” he said. “These are the people that are living in silence and uncertainty that NAMI wants to reach out to.”

Could that outreach be as simple as asking others, "Hi, How Are You?" Music fans will forever associate the phrase with the late, great Daniel Johnston. Fans interested in mental health awareness have been asked to take a simple, free pledge to help unlock a $10,000 grant for the Hi, How Are You Project, an Austin-based nonprofit created to promote positive conversations around mental health issues. Johnston, who died last September, struggled with mental illness and the foundation was formed with the support of the late artist and his family.

With a week left in the campaign, pledges are still needed and the project has turned to some well-known musicians to promote the pledge and the support it promises. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Sharon Van Etten, Britt Daniel of Spoon, Adrian Quesada of Black Pumas, Maggie Koerner, Ben Kweller and Houston’s own Fat Tony all took the pledge and appeared in a video to encourage others to do the same. The grant would help the nonprofit create more media, events and peer-to-peer training programs focusing on mental well-being.

“Coming at it from a music and entertainment perspective made it even more entertaining because those are the people young kids and teens are looking to as role models,” said Dr. Sonia Krishna, a board certified physician specializing in child, adolescent and adult psychiatry who serves as Hi, How Are You Project’s medical adviser. “It’s always helpful when they come out in the media and talk about their own struggles because everybody has some level of struggle that they go through, whether or not it meets criteria for diagnosis, and we would all benefit from some social support, but even more so when you have entertainment people, especially in the city of Austin where music is such a big deal, promoting conversations on this topic.”

Krishna said she she is a music fan, but “in my transparency I’ll say I wasn’t very familiar with Daniel Johnston, no, not at all. I know his murals and his art of the frog on the UT campus is really iconic.

“I think that’s what’s so cool about music, everyone has their own taste but everyone is interested in music. They have done such a good job of finding musicians and celebrities of all categories to be able to talk on this topic.”

Hi, How Are You Project is also promoting a new initiative called “Quarantine & Create.” It encourages musicians and creatives from all disciplines to share their art by tagging @hihowareyouproject using the hashtag #hihowareyouCREATE.

“We’re just highlighting the fact that if you’re home and you’re locked down, you can still do something, you can be creative, you can use your mind for positive things, not just the negative things or depression or anxiety,” Krishna said. “People have done some amazing artistic things which, again, just brings joy to people’s lives, to see what humans are capable of.”

“Being socially distant doesn’t mean you have to be isolated. You don’t have to be separate or lonely through this process,” said Krishna, who recommends social platforms like Zoom and Skype, along with safe, socially-distant outdoor activities. “Social connection is one of the things that makes us so human and it’s one of the things that leads to greater longevity and greater happiness for our species. So, we are used to being in social communities and we have created such wonderful ones in the cities we live in, in school, in work, in faith-based organizations. Now, being separate from all of that, these issues become heightened without that natural resource of supporting each other.”

Each of these organizations has updated its web page to include COVID-19 resources alongside the usual tools. MHA of Greater Houston’s Tomczak shared some startling trends comparing January 2020 to April 2020. The organization reports its number of screenings overall increased 146 percent. Moderate-to-severe anxiety results were up 220 percent and moderate to severe depression results were up 90 percent. Children at risk for emotional, attentional or behavioral issues skyrocketed 450%, based on a survey the organization offers parents. When asked how can MHA can best assist at this time, 60% of respondents said they need help because of caretaker/parental stress.

“As weeks of physical distancing turn into months, many people are experiencing a greater and greater sense of isolation. What’s most troubling for people is the uncertainty - fear of infection, when the pandemic will end, the economic crisis and job loss that has resulted,” Tomczak said.

With the deck so stacked, it’s hard to think music or artists can make much of a difference. Tomczak said the arts and especially artists willing to speak openly about their own mental health challenges do make a difference. Though she said she is relatively unfamiliar with Johnston’s music, Tomczak said his example of speaking honestly about mental health is admirable.

“There is the romantic notion that metal illness and creativity are linked, but I see his artistry in all its forms may well have been his way of coping and expressing his emotions, processing complex feelings and, I hope, finding relief from his symptoms,” she said. “When artists who struggle with mental health challenges share their talents with us we learn about self-acceptance and it breeds compassion, and that helps to reduce stigma. Art reminds us to focus on the talents we all possess, not on any disabilities we may face.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.