Classical music is a lifeline to mental health

Editor's note: This essay was originally published on www.classicalmpr.org as part of Minnesota Public Radio’s Call to Mind initiative. It is the first in a three-part series and republished here with permission.

By Steve Seel

Mental health and music touch all of us — so why is the former still so hard to talk about?

This month, I'm sharing how music is one of the greatest resources we have in sustaining — or mending — our personal mental health. And as a classical music on-air host, surrounded by amazing and profound music on a daily basis, I feel like I'm in a unique position to understand this.

May is Mental Health Month, and the subject of music as a lifelong therapeutic companion seems appropriate. But first, here's where I'm coming from.

I've been in therapy for 23 years. These days, this is not an unusual admission for a person to make. However, it's still very, very hard for me to state. Why would that be? Isn't this a different world now, where we're not ashamed of anything anymore?

If you've ever had cause to talk about your own experience in therapy but instead you've stopped yourself, you probably already know the answer. Despite the great leaps we've made as a culture in destigmatizing mental-health issues, plenty of misinformation and judgment remain. I feel it acutely as a so-called public figure. (As much as a public-radio host is a public figure — but also, being in such a buttoned-down business like public radio means there's additional self-generated pressure to maintain the "brand" of being friendly, safe and oh-so-together. In that way, it's not so different from, well, most professions in the world.)

Second, it's a tricky subject because talking publicly about my mental health draws my family into that public picture by implication — and they didn't ask for that. They deserve their privacy, and yet, my talking about my mental health by its very nature causes the public's collective camera-eye to make that jump-cut to members of my family for the "reaction shot." It's not fair to them. (Just to be clear, most of them support my public sharing.)

Finally, most of us with significant depression or other mental-health issues always fear that we are appearing to "excuse" our sometimes rocky life-record of interacting with the world by attributing our behaviors to something we have "no control" over. We fear people will think we're saying, "Sorry, but this is just the way I am."

Believe me: We are extremely aware of the way our challenges have affected our loved ones and friends — in ways big and small — and we are horrified when we suspect (or worse, are told directly) that others think we expect to be coddled. To the contrary, we desperately wish some of our behaviors in life had been different. But all we can do is get up each morning, take better care of ourselves and those we love, and continue to try to be the healthiest we can be.

So, yes, I feel lots of conflict when writing about this — but I'm going to do it anyway, because while those three reasons are always present, they're continually at odds with my intense belief in smashing stigma. I'm a passionate crusader against the way shame is used in our culture to keep marginalized groups on the fringes — be they LGBTQ individuals, or those recovering from addiction issues, or anyone who would avoid speaking truth for fear of upsetting the oppressive customs of their environments. This kind of shame is one of the greatest emotional poisons in the world.

So with that as my orientation, I'm going to share a few thoughts over the next few weeks. Not as a therapy expert, but as a person who — just like millions of people, and perhaps you, too — believes that music can be a great tool in your arsenal as you nurture your mental health.

(That was uncomfortable! But I got through it. I'm going to go listen to one of my favorite "decompressing" pieces now, which almost never fails to lower my blood pressure by about 10 points: Maurice Ravel's "Valley of the Bells" from Miroirs. See if it doesn't have a similar effect on you.)

Steve Seel is a classical music host and producer at Minnesota Public Radio. He possesses a broad knowledge of many musical genres, having hosted radio programs ranging from classical to jazz and even avant-garde music at public radio stations around the country.

Photos by Vienna Reyes (top) and Albert Péntek (mid-page) on Unsplash.

Left Out

By Dan Israel

Allow me to introduce myself—my name is Dan Israel, and I'm a singer-songwriter in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. I've released 14 studio albums of my own songs and am currently recording my 15th. I quit my day job at the Minnesota Legislature in 2017, after 21 years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, in order to pursue music full time.

I recorded the song Left Out in the basement of my former house in 2005. The production was kind of raw. So too were the emotions. It’s sort of a painful song.

The drums are played by me, thus they are … well, drums by me. I half-sang two different words simultaneously at one point, and just left in the flub. You can hear it, maybe. There is no bass.

So, that is what it is. A song about feeling left out, hurt and lonely. And I guess I recorded it that way too, leaving it pretty basic and maybe not even quite smoothed out.  

I thought when I recorded it, and still mostly do now, that it's a pretty good song. I put it on my Danthology "best of" compilation so I must have thought it was among my 25 best songs. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. Either way, it still resonates with me—sometimes too much.  

I was not a deprived or neglected child, but I am quite sensitive—not a shock to those who know me. Too sensitive, really, and I hate it sometimes. I was a middle child with some of the middle-child complex, needing more attention than I could ever get. 

I also just am who I am, and that is a person who often feels on the outside of everything. I like being alone, sort of, but don't necessarily like FEELING alone. Unfortunately, that is how I have felt much of this past year.

Too often, when I am with others, I get hurt and offended by the smallest things. I can be insanely envious sometimes. When I see someone else having success and feel like I "should have" been included, it makes me crazy. I don't like myself when I get like that, but also know such feelings are never too far away. As it is, I am not much of a "group" person or a "joiner.”

My challenge is that defiant loner-ism is not necessarily the best recipe for continued mental health and good feelings, particularly when you are a divorced 48-year-old father of two who is a singer-songwriter and recently quit his day job to work full time in the so-called "music business." (While most businesses are based on a model whereby the product is actually valued economically, the world seems unwilling to PAY much of anything for creative works these days. But I digress.)

It’s a bit of a predicament — being a person who always wants to be alone but then feels way too lonely. A person who doesn't feel like he fits in anywhere, never blends, and always is against the grain of what everyone else seems to be doing, wanting, thinking, feeling or whatever.

So, here is today's "real talk" — I hurt. We all hurt. I put up a good front sometimes, or maybe I don't. But I often feel left out and isolated, like I am looking through a window at everyone else having fun while I stand outside. This mental image does NOT necessarily correspond with reality, but it is vivid and affects me nonetheless.  

I have played music professionally (more or less) for 30 years now. I have not had that one "big break" where I suddenly get a song in a movie or TV show, get signed to a big record label, or get asked to appear on a late-night talk show. I have had lots of “little breaks,” and many people view me as successful, but frankly, in my own mind, I'm nowhere near where I'd like to be. I still want the big break and everything that might go with it. Some might say it’s a shallow aspiration, but I can't help what I want and am not ashamed of pursuing greater success. That said, I've won awards, toured Europe, been played on the radio a lot, and gotten lots of gigs that many people would be thrilled to get. I can't complain, but sometimes I still do (that's someone else's song lyric, but it feels appropriate here).

I'm also realistic. I’ve been playing music since I was a teenager, and at this age, it’s entirely possible the big break will never come. Yet, I can't let go of the dream, and that puts me in a weird place sometimes. I would love to say that I accept where I am and am happy with what I have, because I know that's what I SHOULD say, but it just simply isn't true. I'm still hungry for recognition. I don't know why I care. So many people seem so much more enlightened than me — able to simply be happy with whatever they have right now. Me, I'm quite grateful for what I have, but honestly, I still want more.

This is not a plea for pity. No one should feel sorry for me. I have so much — two beautiful children and a very good life, overall. And yet, I'm not satisfied and don't think I will be anytime soon. Sometimes, all I can do is write about it.

It isn't only about frustrated ambition, either. I suffer from depression. Quite a bit. I also have struggled with addiction. I was addicted to opiates and got on the medication Suboxone several years ago. I'm still on Suboxone and go to therapy every week. Sometimes, the anxiety I suffer from seems like a worse problem than the depression, sometimes vice-versa, and sometimes I can't tell the two things apart and am not even sure they ARE two different things. Overall, I look pretty functional to the outside world, and yet, inside, I often don't feel good, even when good things happen (though, I will say, good things do sometimes temporarily lift my depression a bit, so it is somewhat situational). I am not sober, and I don't consider myself "in recovery" — yet, I did let go of the opiates and I shudder to think what would have happened if I had continued down that path. I don't think it would have ended well.

Social media exacerbates all of my issues — especially the feeling of being "left out" of everyone else's seemingly neverending ride of fun-fun-fun, which is how other people's lives often appear (falsely) to me. So I am trying to minimize my exposure to social media, especially Facebook, because of how it impacts me in this regard. 

Right now, I feel like I might not have much more time to do music full time. It's just not economically sustainable — and before you ask, let me reassure you that I knew this going in but thought maybe I could buck the odds and make something really big happen that would enable me to keep doing music full time, indefinitely. Now, I'm not so sure. But I haven't gone and gotten another job yet. I am going to see where my new music takes me and try to avoid getting another "desk job" for as long as I can.

With that in mind, I will leave you with the lyrics to my song Left Out and the link to the music. I am going to get back to making demos of my newest songs for an upcoming studio session. Maybe I won't be "left out" forever. Maybe I never was "left out" and it was all just in my head. Maybe everyone really loves me a lot, and they just forget to remind me of it as often as I would prefer. Anyway, wish me luck, and thanks for reading this.  

Dan Israel’s music and shows are available at www.danisraelmusic.com.


On the lonely road I travel, I never seem to see, all the fun everybody’s having, never seems to be for me, 

I took a different path, I never knew what normal was, 

On the lonely road I travel, only reason was because

I always felt out, even when invited in,

Never felt the least bit comfortable, 

Right here inside my skin,

I don’t try to make no trouble,

But there’s trouble in my head,

Hope you know I never meant no harm,

No matter what I said

Oh, it’s a long way home,

Good fortune, well I’m due for some,

Left out, that’s the way it seems,

Picked last, to be on the team

On the lonely road I travel, many times I had to swerve,

Don’t expect no special treatment, I only ask what I deserve,

So if you see me out there, won’t you just acknowledge me?

I’m just trying to run out time, before time runs out on me,

I’m just trying to run out time, before time runs out on me....

The Future of Depression

By Paul “P.T.” Thomas

About 25 years ago, I remember a very tense conversation around the dinner table. As my mom, dad, brother (7), sister (2) and I gathered for our family meal, there was a “feeling in the air” that even a 10-year-old boy could recognize. With a calm in her voice yet a nervousness in her words, my mother explained to us that my aunt had recently been to the doctor for some tests … and those tests revealed something very troubling … that my aunt had … cancer.  “Cancer!” I exclaimed in a loud and scared voice that one could tell was the exact way my mom and dad felt but didn’t want to show, so as not to upset us kids. It was almost as if the word itself was evil and that merely speaking the “C-word” caused the room to be filled with fear. Or that perhaps simply uttering the “C-word” would open up the windows, and cancer would magically crawl into the house and affect one of us—right then and there. Cancer was scary … cancer was alarming … cancer was mostly an unknown … and we didn’t even want to talk about it.

Fast forward 25 years. Cancer is still scary. A cancer diagnosis is still alarming, and it is STILL a horrible disease. I would never diminish anyone’s battle with cancer. Lord knows I’ve lost way too many friends and family to the disease. However, ONE thing that has drastically changed during this past quarter century is how we as a culture approach cancer, face it, and come together as a community to support friends and family affected. Heck, nowadays we would probably host a fundraiser at the neighborhood American Legion for my aunt. We’d have t-shirts made supporting her, hashtags would be trending, and we would make damn sure she knew the entire community was going to be with her and her family during the emotional and potentially grueling battle. Again, NONE of this is a bad thing. In fact, just the opposite—these things are all PHENOMENAL displays of support and love during a battle that many times is quite literally a fight for one’s life.

Now take this same story and change the disease to … mental illness. Swap in any mental illness: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD. Would we still be hosting a fundraiser for that? Would our community of friends and family print t-shirts? Probably not. The question I have is this: Why is it so different if someone’s battle originates in the MIND rather than the BODY? The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that approximately one in five Americans experiences mental illness in a given year. That’s 20 percent of Americans! Yet there is still a stigma attached to it.  There is still misunderstanding and an “unknown” aspect to these diseases that affect the most powerful part of the entire human body—our brains. Unfortunately, the reality is that mental illness unchecked or untreated can result in a difficult and emotional battle for one’s own wellbeing and life. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. And it’s absolutely preventable. But those affected by mental illness often suffer quietly and alone, due to the stigma of acknowledging the need for help, the unwillingness to be vulnerable, and/or the lack of understanding, compassion and empathy from others who don’t know what to say or how to help.

I’m not suggesting we call the local Lions club to help us organize a “Linda fights her demons” fundraiser for my friend battling depression. And we should most definitely continue to hold community events supporting those diagnosed with some form of cancer. However, I AM suggesting we need to be more aware of the fact that there’s a “Linda” in your life RIGHT NOW who is battling a disease you can’t see and might not know about. She may be too embarrassed to say something or not how to broach the topic. Or perhaps it is YOU who is struggling with anxiety? Maybe YOU battle depression but don’t want to “burden” friends or family members with your problems, fearing they “are too busy” to listen. Or maybe you experience post-traumatic stress and are reluctant to seek professional help because of some notion that only “weak” people do that.

As a society, we need to approach mental illness more like we do physical illness. We need to be willing to start the conversation about mental health, thus reducing the stigma associated with it. If we can take these steps, I believe we WILL saves lives. But we can’t wait—this must begin now with our generation so that our kids can sit around the dinner table and be comfortable saying that they aren’t feeling well … in their mind … and that they need some help. 

Paul Thomas is the founder of the LIVIN Foundation for mental health awareness and suicide prevention and the Get Busy LIVIN Music Festival. He is also the board chair for the Midwest Country Music Association and an on-air morning-show personality for 102.9 The Wolf in Minneapolis. Find more information about the LIVIN Foundation’s mission, including how to donate, at www.livinfoundation.org.


Coming Back This Fall

Join the LIVIN Foundation for its 2nd Annual Get Busy LIVIN Music Festival on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at ERX Motor Park in Elk River, Minn. Details on Facebook.