Check Your Head with Guest Mari Fong

A pivotal study reported that 73% of musicians live with mood disorders and many have even lost their lives to these disorders. This week the Mental Health Mamas are joined by Mari Fong who has connected with many musicians over her more than 20 years as a music journalist. Mari is a certified Life Coach for Musicians and the executive producer and host of the CHECK YOUR HEAD Podcast. Tune in to hear Mari talk about the prevalence of mood disorders in musicians, what can be done about it, and her own personal mental health journey.

Notes and Mentions

Visit Mari’s website: www.checkyourheadpodcast.com


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Transcript

Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.

Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.

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Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You’ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, NoNeedToExplainPodcast.com.

Serena: From a very young age I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. What about you Tina?

Tina: Absolutely! I “played school” from a very young childhood and my desire to be a teacher never ever wavered. And I haven’t actually been a full time teacher in 26 years!

Serena: Yeah, I would say my story is similar in many ways. I dreamed of becoming a musician and that’s exactly what I did! I went all the way through school for music. I spent a number of years freelancing and teaching but ultimately decided that I needed to pursue something else in order to preserve my wellbeing and mental health. I had this sense of never being good enough despite everything I had done and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life chasing that perfection that I knew I was never going to catch. Does that make sense?

Tina: It makes perfect sense, especially knowing you Serena Ward. For sure. Mental health challenges are prevalent in so many creative fields and we are excited to welcome a guest today to the podcast today who knows a lot about this topic.

Serena: Mari Fong has been a music journalist for more than 20 years and has interviewed and covered a variety of musicians including Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Ozzy Osbourne, Paul McCartney, Aerosmith, The White Stripes, The Strokes, Green Day, System of A Down, and David Bowie. She is a certified Life Coach for Musicians and Executive Producer and Host of the Check Your Head Podcast. Mari, welcome to the podcast!

Mari: Well thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here Serena and Tina. And before we start I do want to say that I am a mother of two daughters who are now grown and I am fortunate to have my family here around me as I live here in Los Angeles.

Serena: That’s great. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. So, let’s start by talking about musicians and mental health. As I mentioned, I have certainly struggled with my own mental health particularly when I worked as a musician and I saw countless others struggling as well yet there’s so much stigma around talking about it. So I’m wondering if you can share with us the incidence of mood disorders in musicians?

Mari: Well there was actually a pivotal study that was done. It was called the 73 percent study and it was done by the president of a company called Record Union in Sweden. We actually had Johan Svanberg come on to the Check Your Head Podcast to talk about this study. It took a survey of 1500 independent musicians and asked them if they’ve had negative emotions like feelings of anxiety or depression or panic attacks; things like that in relation to their music, being a musician. They found that 73 percent of those responding said yes, they have experienced those emotions some time throughout their career or even throughout their life. And for younger musicians the incidence was even higher. It was 80 percent. So there’s definitely something going on with musicians which I think is partially due to their personality and also to the lifestyle. The lifestyle is really unique and can have quite a bit of different pressures and a lot of uncertainty.

Tina: So tell us a little bit more about what your thoughts are on that lifestyle and, you know, why this is such a high percentage.

Mari: Well, you know, Serena, you can probably relate to some of this because you just said that you were wanting to be a musician but for the lifestyle, the different pressures…one thing that you mentioned is just this feeling of wanting to make things perfect and to be in a creative field, you know, an artist, always, you know, something always can be changed or updated or perfected and that’s why deadlines are so important because this could go on forever and it’s really a challenge. But for a musician…I do think that people who get into the creative arts often are very emotionally expressive. Oftentimes they get into the arts like music because they find it as a way to express those emotions that they may even find harder to express verbally. I’ve had musicians say, you know, it’s so much easier for me to write a lyric about how I’m feeling and to play a melody that expresses how I feel. And they may not consciously be thinking of this as therapeutic; all they know is that it feels good. And the more they’re able to pour that out, those who are receiving that…listeners or people that are there to experience that art…they are also touched by that emotion and can also make them feel good and better about what they’re going through.

But as far as their lifestyle goes…you know there’s a lot of uncertainty in music. There’s financial instability. Oftentimes musicians can go from gig to gig. They’re not sure how long that gig is going to last. You know, a gig might be with a certain band. It might be a certain series of events; maybe it’s a tour. And once that gig is over it’s time to start looking for work again. So that is an ongoing process. And you know, when you think about the lifestyle of starting as a musician, I mean, a lot of these musicians will start out with a full time job then having to get off of work and then going to rehearse. And then having gigs that go late into the night. And then having the after party where you’re socializing, you know, you’re meeting with fans and then having to do the business part of promoting your music. And then you wake up the next morning, you know, after probably a bad night’s sleep or not enough sleep or maybe you were drinking the night before because it’s all part of being in the club; doing the gig. You know, all of those things, you could see how that can be sort of a…you know, can possibly trigger a mood disorder like depression or anxiety as musicians continue to rise. I mean, just the whole idea of touring is…you know we have all been away from our families maybe through a vacation or maybe through work and it’s tough. It might sound glamorous but we’re away from everything that we love; our family, our friends, our animals, our pets.

So there’s quite a lot that goes into the lifestyle of a musician that can really affect their moods.

Tina: Yeah, I was gonna say the, kind of, rejection and the opposite end of the spectrum. The celebration. The stardom. Just tons of highs and lows and I’m just gonna say out loud, the lack of sleep. That is just really rough on your mental health, right? And I can’t even imagine.

Mari: You know I did not realize when I was younger how much sleep was important. But I mean even logically if you can think about when you get a bad night’s sleep for whatever reason, the next morning, I don’t care how smart or optimistic or whatever that you are, you’re going to be irritable, you’re going to be, you know, your body…you might have a headache. You’re not gonna be in top shape. You’re gonna be reactive. Maybe you’re going to react in maybe anger and be sensitive with your emotions. There’s so much that happens during sleep that is restorative. I mean, it not only helps recharge your body, it helps recharge your mind. I’ve learned to have a sleep routine so that I can be, you know, in top shape every day. If I’m able to.

Tina: I’m buying what you’re selling. I am all about the sleep. Yeah, for sure. You are speaking my language Mari, for sure.

Mari: I mean if you can imagine…think about this…if you had to be on a tour bus and sleep on the road with this engine and with all these people around you and you’re eating, you know, fast food, you’re not necessarily thinking about nutrition but you’re just thinking about eating. You’re away from the people that you love and you don’t have a lot of privacy. You could see how, you know, this just kind of snowballs. And one thing you mentioned is being on stage. I mean, a lot of musicians can be very introverted. You know, they go deep down into their emotions and pull out these great songs but having to step out on stage in front of hundreds and thousands of people. I mean, that’s hard for anybody. Now you can see where sometimes they might want to take a shot of whiskey to calm the nerves. And that, you know, can escalate into something where it’s a problem. You know, they found that a lot of musicians can sometimes self-medicate much more easily than calling a doctor or a therapist if they’re going through mood disorder or mental health conditions.

Tina: Yeah and I don’t think that’s unique to…certainly not unique to musicians. I think that there’s lots of times when self-medication is an easier, more accessible choice than healthy mental health choices. So yeah, for sure.

Serena: Yeah. Yeah, so I’m just gonna comment on the lack of stability. So you know I’m a classically trained musician so my life is a little different however the idea that I was working 6 days a week and just hoping for that next gig and we didn’t have health insurance. We had to pay for health insurance out of pocket and that is huge. It’s such a burden for a family and yeah, so all of those…all of those things you talked about all went into my decision to kind of leave that life behind. But let’s talk about you. You’ve been connected with a lot of different musicians over the years, as we mentioned at the beginning and seen a lot of struggles first hand, but we would like you to take us back to 2017 and tell us a bit about what was going on for you personally at that time.

Mari: Well 2017 was pivotal for me because I was just coming out of a really bad bout of depression. And with that came anxiety. It took me years to find out what was going on with me because at the time, and it happened also in 2014, it happened at a time where I felt I was at the top of my game. I was in a job and career that I really enjoyed. I was doing work that was fulfilling. Everything was going well with my family, my daughters. But I fell into this depression that really knocked me out. I mean it knocked me out to a point where I couldn’t feel any of the good feels any more. I couldn’t even feel hunger so it was very hard for me to eat. I just wanted to stay in bed. I didn’t have the energy to get up and do anything and I felt so unlike myself. Normally I would have energy and I was optimistic and I was positive and here it was completely the opposite. I felt hopeless and worthless and I had regrets that I had never thought of before in my life. I had all of these symptoms of depression. Although I did figure out what was going on with me, you know, I found out that it was actually hormonally based, that I was going through symptoms of menopause. And when I thought back I realized that when I was in college that sometimes during, kind of like a premenstrual syndrome kind of thing, sometimes I’d fall into a really bad depression that would last maybe a week or so. And I wouldn’t want to see anybody. It was hard for me to do my school work. But I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t really make any kind of correlation and when I finally realized through a lot of trial and error and through a lot of my own research that it was hormonally based, I ended up…you know, right now I’m taking an antidepressant, a low dose antidepressant but I’m also taking bio identical hormones that have positively affected my mood and also positively affected me physically.

And I also realized that I have, you know, psoriasis, which is an auto-immune disease and oftentimes physical conditions can trigger mood disorders. So yes, this is what was going on with me in 2017 and when I got out of that I realized that there were other people, musicians in particular that were going through these situations that were also confused and scared. And some of them had lost their lives to it. 2017 was when Chester Bennington of Linkin Park and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden both took their own lives due to a long-standing mental illness and I just really had compassion for them because I knew what it felt like. But at the same time I wanted to do something to make a difference because it was not only them but it was, you know, musicians in the past. You think of Kurt Cobain, you think of Amy Winehouse, you think of Karen Carpenter, you think of even Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix back in the day. There were mood disorders. There was addiction. And I wanted to slow down and possibly even put a stop to this ongoing trend with musicians and mental health and making it a priority.

Tina: Yeah, for sure. So it sounds like both your personal experience and all this reflection on others in the world that we’ve all witnessed all too much of for sure lately. Was that kind of your inspiration to create your Check Your Head Podcast?

Mari: You know what? It was because the first thing I thought of doing was to raise money, was to do a fundraiser. I did something called the Chinatown Getdown which was kind of a music/dance event where we raised money for nonprofits, for mental health. And then I thought I really want to do something that’s ongoing, something where we could help normalize the conversations on mental health and encourage people to get help by providing hope through stories and also to provide solutions because I think that was one step that I really didn’t see as much as I would like is OK, now that I’ve…I think that there’s an issue here. Where do I go? What do I do? What’s the next step to find help? So yeah, that’s where the Check Your Head, Mental Health for Musicians Podcast grew from is just this desire really to help others.

Serena: Yeah, so for our listeners out there who have not yet discovered your podcast, I’m sure they will now, could you share maybe a bit about the format and you’ve talked a little bit about the mission…but just tell us about your podcast.

Mari: Sure! Well, the Check Your Head Podcast is where notable musicians and experts share their mental health solutions for wellness. So every episode we have a notable musician like we’ve had Fred Armisen who’s a drummer and comedian. We’ve had the rock band Seether come on the podcast. We’ve even had Linda Rondstat come on which was a huge, incredible thrill for me to be able to talk to these living legends in music. We’ve had mental health experts that I pair with each story. So for instance, if I have a band like Satellite City come on and talk about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I go and find and Obsessive Compulsive specialist that could speak on the topic. So with that we had Chris Tronsden who not only has OCD but also is now an educator and therapist for OCD and he speaks about it all around the world so I really tried to make each episode focused on a mood disorder and the right specialist to speak about different kinds of therapies, different kinds of solutions that are out there. So it’s a combination of real world solutions and also professional advice that listeners can kind of soak up when they listen to each story.

Tina: Well we clearly love it and I think what I love about it is the normalizing and the solidarity you have with these musicians and yeah, again, just normalizing all of that. So part of that is musicians helping musicians. I’m curious; I think we both are; about what we think that the music industry can help to recognize, normalize, improve, you know, kind of the mental health conditions for musicians?

Mari: Well you know, there’s really a lot that can be done. I know there’s a lot of resources online. At CheckYourHeadPodcast.com, our website, we try to put as many solutions as we can in the website so that it goes beyond a sucide hotline or what we’re normally given for solutions. So there’s things for PTSD, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and so forth but I really do believe that the music industry understands that there’s an issue with mental health, that they want to do something. However, I don’t see as much action being taken. I think some of the things that can be done is maybe making mental health a priority, knowing that it’s a foundation for a musician’s career to have mental and physical health as part of, you know, as a priority. I think it would be good to incorporate things on tour like meditation, good nutrition and exercise and also knowing that “me time” is really important. “Me time” could be just taking yourself out to dinner and having that quiet time or talking with your family on Zoom while you’re on tour. And also having accessibility to help. If somebody has got to a point where their depression or anxiety or any kind of mood disorder is getting out of hand…if drugs and alcohol might be involved and addiction might be involved then to have access to specialists whether it be doctors, psychiatrists, life coaches. You know there’s so many different kinds of therapy that can be done online. Online support groups that can be utilized. I mean there’s really a lot that can be done. It just needs to be implemented and made a priority within the industry.

Serena: Yeah so, your life is clearly very full of finding ways to support other people and sharing valuable resources, in addition to, you mentioned your daughters and your family. So we want to know about the things that you’re doing to support yourself or what you do for self-care.

Mari: Well you know one thing that you mentioned is my daughters and family and you know we all have family and friends that are there to support us. And one thing I learned through my own experience with depression and anxiety is that as a mother, as a parent, it was hard for me to accept help from my daughters. My daughters are grown women with careers and it was hard and they wanted to help and I was like…this is not right. I’m your mother. I’m supposed to be helping you and taking care of you. I do not want to impose on you. And it took me a lot to bring those barriers down and accept the help and accept them as my family that cared and wanted to do something. And my daughters had to get very stern with me and said, Mom, I am going to drive you to support group. Mom, you need to make this appointment with this doctor. And I learned that even as a parent, to accept help, and it might even come from your children. So you know that’s one thing, especially with family because they do want to help and are usually the first that you can turn to for support. And if you are family and you’re not even sure what to do or say, sometimes just showing that you care by saying, you know what, tell me what’s going on. What’s going on with you? How can I help? What can I do? And I remember when I was going through my struggle, the little things that people did. I remember my sister-in-law going to get In-N-Out Burger for me because she was worried I was losing weight and I ate that huge meal because I know she did it with love and care. My brother took me to doctor's appointments. That meant everything to me. My sister and my mom came over every week. They cooked dinner and we all had dinner together. These are all moments of care that can make the difference, right, in your mental health.

And on a day-to-day basis I’ve learned…we talked about sleep routine. Having a regular sleep time. I put an eye mask, I put ear plugs, I’m such a sensitive sleeper. I make sure that I read before I go to sleep. There’s certain things that I do to make sure that I have good sleep. The other thing I do is I listen to music. Music is so good for your mental health. If you are going through a tough time, you know, sometimes when you’re sad a sad song can make you feel better because you know that that artist, their lyrics, the emotion is connecting with how you feel. And that makes you feel less alone. Because when you’re in a mood disorder, oftentimes you feel alone even though you’re surrounded by people you love. There’s something about a mood disorder that makes you feel disconnected. So that can make you feel better. The other thing is that if you’re in a mood and you want to change that mood, like for instance, if I want to get energized or if I want to feel better, I start to listen to dance music. Music from the past that made me feel happy, that made me feel good. I will dance through making dinner. I mean, these are fun things that are easy, that are free, that we can do to help our moods and elevate our moods and make us feel not so alone through music.

Tina: Mari I love so many of these. Love the dancing through the cooking, love that! I’m picturing that in my head. And I guess I wanna just circle back for a moment and recognize that you pointed out, as a piece of self-care, that you learned how to ask for help. I think so many of us, would, I don’t know, not necessarily even point that out as self-care and it so is. I think you find your people and you ask for what you need and I think as moms it’s so hard for us to do that. So thank you for pointing that out. One more question for you today. What is the message you would like to share with any musicians who might be struggling with their mental health or really anyone who might be struggling right now?

Mari: Well, mental health is important for everyone but sometimes we don’t put it in the forefront or prioritize it. And if you’re going through a mood disorder for whatever reasons whether it’s through trauma or grief or a physical disorder, sometimes a thyroid condition or hormones in my case affected my moods…there’s so many reasons why our mental health can suffer. You’re not alone. A lot of us go through these challenges just like you’re going through. There is help. A majority of people recover and there’s so many different ways to recover. But the thing is that…I always say that if you’re experiencing a mood disorder like depression or anxiety or panic attacks, PTSD, that is not your fault. And sometimes people feel like they can work their way out of that by being mentally tough or…if we all could do that mood disorders would not exist. No one wants to be in that place but recovery is possible, for sure. And I know that sometimes you feel like it’s hopeless but keep that little shred of hope. Keep trying. There’s a lot of trials and tribulations but once you find your solution for recovery I guarantee that there’s a better life out there. There’s a better life on the other side. Once you go over that mountain there is more appreciation, more gratitude every day because you experience life differently after that and so I feel like that is what I was able to actually gain from my experience. So I encourage everyone to really play detective. Find out what’s going on and keep trying. Try different solutions no matter what it might be. It might be an online support group. It might be therapy. It might be nutrition. But just keep trying.

Serena: So before we close, can you share your tagline with us from your podcast?

Mari: Oh, my tagline is, “Be brave, ask for help, and be persistent in finding the mental help that you need.”

Serena: Mmm. Love that! Mari, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. We so appreciate the work that you’re doing to support the mental health of so many people out there.

Mari: Well thank you so much Tina and Serena because you know, without a podcast like yourself that’s focusing on family and parents and children that are going through mental health struggles, you know, this is a place where people can find community and oftentimes mental health struggles start when in elementary school or as young adults. So thank you so much for doing what you’re doing.

Tina: Yeah so I just want to say that people like us do do podcasts and I think the idea that you have forward-facing people in the world who people look up to in such an amazing way, you know, Elvis, I mean let’s just go back to that, right? I mean not that you’re had Elvis but you know what I mean. The idea that you are allowing these voices to rise up and giving notice to this super important topic. So thank you.

Mari: Oh, you’re welcome!

Tina: So podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leaving us a review, subscribing and share this widely with others. You will find more content on our website, NoNeedtoExplainPodcast.com. You will also find an email address there and we would love to hear from you by email.

Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks again for listening!

Serena: Bye!

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