I've known Dr. Anita Schlank for a few years. If you've ever been to a blues show anywhere in the vicinity of Richmond, Virginia, you've probably seen her on the front row taking great pictures and video. Some of the best pictures on this blog have been taken by her. She's now the main author behind an outstanding new book, Blues Therapy, that describes what several blues artists experience on a daily basis.
Despite her busy work and concert schedule, Dr. Schlank was kind enough to take some time out and join me in the studios of VPM-Music for a discussion about the book and the blues.
John Porter:: Welcome to another edition of Conversin’ with the Blues. I am delighted to have today’s guest because you know, a lot of people in the blues have great nicknames -- they call themselves doctor this or doctor that, or even somebody who calls himself the Professor. Well, for the first time I have an actual doctor here -- Dr. Anita Schlank. She is a psychologist. That makes her a Ph.D. doctor—she can’t give you any meds, but she has written an amazing book called Blues Therapy. Dr. Schlank, thank you very much for coming in today.
Anita Schlank, Ph.D.: Thanks for having me.
Porter: Let’s talk a little bit about Blues Therapy. I can describe a bit about it, but I’d like you to describe in more depth. You have held conversations with a number of blues artists talking about the mental struggles that each one faced, some similar some dissimilar, and the way that they have used music to transcend whatever mental ills they have. Is that a correct assumption?
Schlank: That’s correct. There are three sections to the book. I wrote the first section from a psychologist’s perspective, trying to dispel myths about mental illness and explain a little bit about different mental illnesses and about the therapeutic effects of music on the brain. The second section is written by Tab Benoit, who discusses those issues from the perspective of a musician. The longest section is just what you mentioned—it contains interviews with blues musicians who suffer from mental illness, talking about that experience and talking about the beneficial effects of music in their life.
Porter: Can you illustrate some of the different terms because a layman might not necessarily know the splitting hairs between this condition and that condition. Starting with, what is schizophrenia?
Schlank: Schizophrenia is a disorder in which people lose touch with reality. They might experience hallucinations, such as seeing things that aren’t there or hearing voices that aren’t there. Or, they might become delusional, believing things to be true, such as becoming very overly suspicious, thinking people are out to hurt them.
Porter: What about bipolar disorder?
Schlank: With bipolar disorder people experience extreme shifts in mood from being very depressed to feeling what we call manic, which is having excessive energy, decreased need for sleep, maybe having some grandiose ideas. Some even have some psychotic experiences when they are manic.
Porter: Major Depressive Disorder—that seems to pop up quite a bit in the book.
Schlank: Someone with Major Depressive Disorder can experience sleep disturbance, tearfulness, and they can have suicidal thoughts. It’s more than just feeling sad about a situation. It can come on even when people have things going well in their life.
Porter: Suicidal thoughts? I think everyone has some from time to time, but this seems to be more pervasive. At what point should someone start to become worried about someone who voices such a thought?
Schlank: It never hurts to ask people about those thoughts. I know people might worry that it will put the idea in their head, but it really doesn’t hurt to ask about that. If the person isn’t really suicidal, they will tell you, and it can be very helpful to talk about the thoughts. Is it just a fleeting thought, or is it a preoccupation? Are they thinking a lot about it, and how they will do it, and how to not hurt family and friends by doing it. That’s when it can be very concerning.
Porter: Now you are a professional. Can someone without this type of training actually do somebody some good who is having those thoughts?
Schlank: Absolutely. I think it’s helpful for people to know that you understand and that you’re not shocked by that idea and it’s ok to talk about these things. That’s part of what we are doing with the book. We’re showing that more people can talk about this. It’s not something we have to keep secret.
Porter: That’s a great segue then into the reason you wrote this book and the people who volunteered their innermost thoughts. I need to give each of them a standing ovation for doing that because it’s very frank. What was your initial reason for writing the book?
Schlank: The main reason was to try to lessen the stigma associated with mental illness and to try to get people to talk about it more. Maybe more people will seek help when they need it. I was really affected by the suicides of some famous people, and I was wishing that maybe they had felt freer to talk about it. I also definitely wanted to raise money for the HART fund. That was a secondary purpose for writing it.
Porter: What is the HART Fund?
Schlank: The HART fund is part of the Blues Foundation that pays for medical, dental, and burial expenses, including mental health expenses which blues musicians often can’t afford to pay. And many of them don’t have health insurance so the HART fund can be very helpful.
Porter: I imagine if you have been making your living most of your life going club to club playing your heart out for an audience, there is probably not a good pension plan attached to that.
Schlank: No, there is not.
Porter: So it’s good that someone is looking out for that. I know that Doc Pomas at one time started a program for paying back songwriters who had been ignored for years, and he actually got a lot of money for a lot of musicians. Big Joe Turner once asked him, “Why am I getting a check from someone called the Blues Brothers?” So, I certainly appreciate that. Now the HART Fund is on the Blues Foundation website, right?
Schlank: Yes, it stands for Handy Artist Relief Trust.
Porter: That’s very cool. Who were some of the actual people interviewed for the book?
Schlank: Well, Mike Zito wrote the foreword, and as I mentioned Tab Benoit was my co-author. And then for the interviews we had Monster Mike Welch, Annika Chambers, Beth Hart, Eric Gales, Mark Earley, Amanda Fish, Janiva Magness, Anders Osborne, Phil Pemberton, Billy Price, Billy Wirtz, Dawn Tyler Watson, Ronnie Earl, and Nick Moss.
Porter: Wow! That is an all-star lineup and each person was able to talk about the struggles that they had. I know Janiva has done so on her own blog and she actually brings it up from time to time at her concerts. She and I have talked some about that. How did you get the other people to open up, like Phil Pemberton and “Monster” Mike?
Schlank: You know Monster Mike had actually been open with his struggles with depression on Facebook, so I knew that he had that already. I originally started out with only about six people in mind. But the more that I talked to my friends it seemed like people would say they wanted to be involved. For example, I was talking about it to Nick Moss and he said, “well, I have panic disorder, I’ll give you an interview.” And that kept happening. So for many of them it happened that way
Porter: I know when I grew up people did not discuss, not even amongst their family, issues like this and l and I think it really messed people up over the years. I am glad to see people coming forward with these stories. Let me ask you, what did you learn from this experience? You are a professional, you are a doctor and doing this on a daily basis, but not this side. You don’t usually work with creative people. What did you learn?
Schlank: One thing I learned was just how prevalent it is. You know, having so many people that I didn’t know had disorders say, “let me give you an interview”. That was something. I also learned that people working in the entertainment field are six times more likely than others to experience suicidal thoughts. That’s very concerning given that they are less likely to have pension plans and health insurance that cover treatment. I also learned that listening to music can help people with Alzheimer’s Disease decrease their anxiety and that people who listen to music before and during surgery need fewer sedatives. Some of that was very interesting to me.
Porter: Do you have thoughts about why that might be?
Schlank: Well, listening to music does cause chemical reactions in the brain, such as less cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased dopamine, which is sometimes thought of as the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It also increases endorphins, which are sometimes called the body’s natural opiates.
Porter: Is it only the blues that has this effect or could it be jazz or country or polka?
Schlank: it’s definitely not just blues. The research on it is for any kind of music. But many people find the blues to be a very emotional genre. And I think there might be a bit more of a cathartic effect with the blues. You know, listening to the sad tones and listening to the lyrics. Some people think that listening to a good blues singer is a little bit like listening to a therapist, where they work out problems through the lyrics and when you hear their experience you have that feeling that they have been there too and you are not alone.
Porter: Non-blues fans seem to have a misconception that the blues is all about the horrible things. They don’t realize it is the music you play when you have those horrible things going on, to get out of them. There is a small but dedicated group of people who are great blues aficionados. If you had to put together a playlist for non-blues fans, who are artists that they might want to listen to so that they would be able to get some of that experience? I know I’m putting you on the spot with this one, but I think you can come up with a few names.
Schlank: Well, of course, there is Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Howlin’ Wolf, for some of the older ones, and for more current artists I would, of course, recommend listening to any of the artists that contributed to this book.
Porter: You can always check out the Time For The Blues’ playlist and you’ll find a wide variety of those. We always like to play a bit of uplifting blues. You’ve gotten some attention from various places, which I am delighted to see, because you published the book yourself so it’s not like it is making someone else richer, it all goes right into the HART Fund. What are the plans for a possible sequel?
Schlank: I have certainly been thinking about a sequel. I have also been thinking about the possibility of a documentary. You know, some people say they don’t read.
Porter: I think we have elected some of those people.
Schlank: (laughs) Well some people just don’t like to read, so maybe a documentary would broaden the reach of the message.
Porter: Wow that would be fantastic. You’re actually thinking of going into somebody’s therapy session?
Schlank: No, I really wasn’t thinking that. I was just thinking about filming some of the interviews and going over some of the research.
Porter: I would love to see that. Hey, before I forget, how can people get a copy of your book? I mean, from reading this, I’m sure they’re going to want to buy five or six copies.
Schlank: They can go to www.bluestherapybook.com
Porter: How much does it cost?
Schlank: Twenty dollars. And all that goes to the HART Fund. That’s why I went with self-publishing to make sure that we could give everything to the HART Fund.
Porter: So, every nickel goes to help somebody in the blues world. Someone whose music you have loved. Well, Anita, I’ve have had a wonderful time talking with you. Anything else you would like to leave us with?
Schlank: No, just thank you for the opportunity to talk about this project. I appreciate it.
Porter: Dr. Anita Schlank has been sitting in with us tonight. The name of the book is Blues Therapy. www.bluestherapybook.com is where you can pick up your copy. I highly recommend it. I have two copies. I have one and I gave one to my psychiatrist. Yes, I am in therapy and I’m proud of it. And thank you, Anita, for helping me get there.