The sun is setting in San Francisco and I’m roaming the streets barefoot (again).

It’s the summer of 2004 and I’ve just lost my shoes for the forth time. Seeing as I’ve spent the last hour fighting to stay alive amidst a sea of people, rioting and screaming, it feels like a relatively small casualty.

You might be imagining that I’ve just witnessed a burgeoning political movement take shape, that I was standing (shoeless) at the precipice of some groundbreaking revolution (and, now that I think of it, maybe I was…but I certainly didn’t realize it at the time). You may *also* be thinking I was simply drunk, tripping my way down the crowded streets of the tenderloin (which is also a strong possibility, but I honestly can’t recall the details.) In reality, I was simply ambling back to my car after a night at The Fillmore…manically happy (albeit a bit bruised)…feeling more alive than I’d ever felt.

I often think back to this time, the early 2000s, coming of age just as the California music scene was coming alive with a new wave of emotionally-charged sounds. (Emo, Screamo, Pop-Punk, Hardcore … whatever the distinction, there were lots of feelings, and everyone was yelling.)

While I’ve never fully fleshed out the true impact, this much, I know, is true: Packing into a small, hot venue, with all the focus and intensity funneling in one direction is a powerful, communal experience and arguably more cathartic than most other experiences we’re afforded as adults. (Truly, have you ever been allowed to push someone really hard then sob next to that *same person* whilst swaying? If not, let me tell you, friends: It does NOT disappoint!)

For someone lacking any sort of formal religion, rock shows became my church.

If you were to create a Venn-diagram outlining the commonalities between the two, there probably is a pretty sizable overlap. (you should draw this)

It makes sense, then, that, in moments of struggle, we look to these idols for direction and guidance, that we take their words as gospel and apply them to our lives; that we pour over their lyrics in search of answers; that we try to align our experiences with their teachings; that we seek connection with other believers; that we stand and chant, screaming their words back to them hoping, this time, that we’ll finally hear them.

Because the truth of the matter is, the reason that we love music, is that it offers us a safe place to process and feel – a necessity we’ve, historically, been completely starved for.

We’re a nation of young people being ravaged by mental health issues. Suicide rates and depression and anxiety are all on a steady rise.* But the beauty in this moment, if there is any to be found behind this ominous darkness, is that we’re beginning to accept that mental health isn’t just something to be addressed within the stark walls of our therapist’s office. We’re beginning to look to more than the typical health care provider to carry us through. We’re beginning to see that, maybe, there is healing to be found elsewhere? Maybe there are solutions and connections and answers in our everyday lives? Maybe music is here to save us, after all.

For teens, specifically, there is a power in seeing the people we idolize, respect and trust bringing a vulnerability and openness around these difficult conversations. Emerging at the same time as this early 2000s emo and punk scenes, To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) was established to reach this demographic of young people. 

“TWLOHA is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.”

Traveling with The Warped Tour, TWLOHA brought mental health awareness to a massive audience and served as a springboard for other similarly impactful initiatives. “Wanting to support existing professional help organizations rather than replace them, TWLOHA has invested directly into causes such as Hopeline,, S.A.F.E. Alternatives, Minding Your Mind, and (in Australia) Kids Helpline.”

The incredible thing about TWLOHA was seeing how it affected not just the fans, but the bands as well. It became clear that fame and success were no more protective against mental illness than anything else. The truth that we all struggle was brought fully, and literally, to center stage.

Working in the music industry over the last few years, I’ve noticed an uptick, not just in the vulnerability bands bring to their live shows, but in the intentional messaging that is expressed, both through their lyrics and through their on-stage admissions. There is a real drive to reach out and let listeners know that they are not alone.

This year alone:

We saw Lovely The Band frontman Mitchy Collins open up about his experiences with suicide and suicidal thoughts, encouraging listeners to reach out, find help, and check in on one another. 

We watched K.Flay release an entire album full of deeply personal stories from her childhood with topics ranging from her ever-present mental health struggles to her strained relationship with her father.

Blue October frontman Justin Furstenfeld’s Open Book tour exposed us to his addiction, how he found hope, accepted help and eventually saved himself. 

Rainbow Kitten Surprise floored us with their groundbreaking video for “Hide” (please go watch it immediately) and their resolve to secure equal rights and protections for LGBTQ community members by donating a portion of ticket sales directly to Equality NC. 

Billie Eilish took the world by storm by bringing an entirely new sound to the world of alternative and pop music, but she also brought stories of living with tourette’s syndrome, normalizing the condition for sufferers across the world.

Whether they realize it or not, these bands are shifting the way we orient ourselves to mental health.

I remember the early days of attending shows, being lost in a sea of people, hoping, simply, to hold on to my shoes. I remember the days when “HOW THE FUCK ARE YOU GUYS?!” was the requisite level of interest a band was expected to pay you. I remember how, sometimes, I’d find myself being crushed against the barriers in front of the stage, how the band would stop playing to say something about loving and protecting each other before launching back in to their set. I remember, in that moment, however brief, after fighting for space and gasping for breath, the palpable feeling of relief. 

Today’s bands are doing more than offering brief moments of reprieve from the pain…they’re creating a space where the pain can sit and live as we breathe our way through, creating a space where we can come together in recognition of our brokenness and in awe of our strength, creating a space where, yes, we might lose some shoes…but one where we might find some hope, as well.

  • In the United States, the suicide rate has jumped 24 percent since 1999, to 13 per 100,000 people, with the steepest growth in the years since 2006, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.