Social worker Sheridan Allen grew up loving emo and has been going to DIY shows for at least a decade. Among the punk and emo musicians she’s seen, depression has often seemed to come with the territory—she’s long had the impression, from talking to them after shows and listening to their lyrics, that many artists simply accept it as a fact of life.
A 2016 survey by the University of Westminster (published by Help Musicians UK) suggests that musicians may be up to three times as likely to suffer from depression as the general public. And for years Allen has seen the illness exact a price from the scene she loves—both because musicians don’t address their own depression and because their fans mistakenly romanticize the problem.
“It’s not fun and it’s not fruitful. It’s miserable and it turns productive, capable people into shells of who they were,” she says. “It’s very possible to love emo music and be mentally well.”
These days Allen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in mid-2015, is getting an even more complete look at the daily stressors that weigh on many touring musicians. In January 2015 she founded an organization called Punk Talks (soon to become a nonprofit) so that she could help people in the music industry—especially those who can’t afford care—address their depression and anxiety.
Punk Talks is based in Newport, Kentucky, where Allen is from, but in recent months she’s taken her fledgling organization on the road. She’s toured with bands such as Connecticut-based Sorority Noise and Nashville’s Free Throw, and at their shows she sets up a table with information on how to seek help for depression and other mental health issues. In a couple weeks, her travels will bring her to Chicago. Punk Talks hosts a fund-raiser on Friday, March 31, at the Auxiliary Arts Center, with sets by four midwestern emo bands: locals Dowsing and Mother Evergreen, Joie de Vivre from Rockford, and Annabel from Akron, Ohio.
“Touring is a really interesting experience, because you get to interact with so many people every single day,” Allen says. “But it’s extremely isolated. You’re meeting all these new people every night, but you’re also going thousands of miles away from your loved ones and your support network. It’s exhausting.”
Right now, Punk Talks has a simple process. Musicians seeking mental health services contact the organization, and it determines whether they fit its criteria. The rules aren’t exactly carved in stone—Allen says Punk Talks accepts clients on a case-by-case basis—but in general the person seeking therapy must work full-time in the music industry and be unable to receive mental health assistance through traditional channels. If clients can afford services through their insurance or can seek out local help, Allen helps match them with mental health professionals in their communities. But Punk Talks also has a small roster of volunteer therapists who can work directly with musicians, providing free care to those who don’t have any other options.
Most of Allen’s work so far has been in referrals, because Punk Talks currently has only three therapists—Allen herself, plus one in Chicago and another in Boston. Between them they have three current clients, but Allen says she’s referred hundreds of people in the past two years. If she gets her way, her organization will add three more therapists in 2017.
Musicians connect with Punk Talks’ therapists over the phone for 30- to 45-minute sessions. Scheduling depends on the client’s needs—some call in weekly, while others play it by ear, waiting till they feel like they need a session. Punk Talks has been operating without formal 501(c)(3) nonprofit status while it raises funds, but Allen says she hopes to change that in 2017 as the organization takes on more clients. Punk Talks set up its first information table at a show at 2015’s Bled Fest in Howell, Michigan, and this summer it’s getting a new home—it’s moving to Philadelphia in order to become a presence in a larger local music community.
“Every single musician who has ever picked up a guitar experiences mental health issues, and every human being experiences mental health issues,” Allen says. “Just the same as everybody gets the flu, everybody feels negativity at some point in their lives.”
On tour with Free Throw this February, Allen says she got requests for mental health services every night. She often finds herself giving mini therapy sessions next to her table at shows, discussing personal issues with fans and musicians alike.
Dowsing front man Erik Czaja, who helped Allen book the Chicago benefit show, has firsthand experience with the strain of road life. “She’s trying to help these people that are on tour for three months, and all you have is each other on tour—but having another outlet is super important,” he says. “It’s a really good tool for people trying to go on tour a lot. It’s nice knowing someone else is out there looking out for you besides your bandmates.”
With Trump in the White House, though, Allen has been having more and more conversations about health care coverage—more specifically, about how people will get by without it. As the new administration continues its efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, many musicians are preparing for the possibility that they’ll lose their health insurance, and with it their only access to mental health services.
“[The Affordable Care Act] was designed to help people like musicians, who work really, really hard but just don’t make enough money,” Allen says. “[Repealing the ACA] then creates additional stressors for people who are already very stressed because their jobs don’t pay anything and they’re living a grueling lifestyle. They’re already not living healthily, so you add that on top of a total lack of access to health care. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Czaja says a shortage of money is the biggest problem in most musicians’ lives, and that ACA repeal would add to that pressure. “If you have to pay for your own health insurance, it’s just another cost to go on top of your life,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Do I pay for this or do I go on tour?’ Can you afford to see a therapist if you’re going on tour all the time? Probably not.”
Organizations like Punk Talks shouldn’t have to exist, but our current health care system does so little to provide security at a reasonable cost that all sorts of nonprofits have stepped in to try to patch the holes in the safety net. Allen wants to make sure that no musicians have to go without mental health care, regardless of their financial situations. And the people who reach out to her every day online and at shows have proved to her how important this work is.
“It reaffirms to me that accessibility to mental health treatment in this particular community is absolutely vital,” Allen says. “It’s a crucial and necessary resource.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Sheridan Allen’s social-work training.