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Singer tells students there’s hope for surviving mental illness

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle - 2/21/2018

Country singer Jason DeShaw, who performed Tuesday at Bozeman High School, told students he nearly lost his life to mental illness and alcohol addiction, but he learned there’s hope if you reach out for help.

Even when you’re going through hell, DeShaw told students, you can make it if you just keep hanging on and get over the stigma of asking for help.

“I’ve learned I cannot do this alone,” he said. “I would have died trying to do this alone – I almost did.”

DeShaw, 36, sang, joked, played acoustic guitar and shared personal experiences with more than 2,000 students who gathered in the South Gym to kick off Bozeman High’s first-ever Week of Wellness.

The week was organized by students in the Health Occupations Students of America club and Student Council, with a goal to “stamp out the stigma” around mental illness and encourage students to take care of themselves and each other, said teacher Dawn Drahos, HOSA advisor.

Bozeman students had been planning wellness events long before last week’s shooting at a Florida high school, where 17 people were killed by a former student reported to have mental problems. That tragedy brings a greater sense of gravity to the issue, said Bozeman High senior Ellie Jackson, one of the organizers.

“It obviously does,” Jackson said. “It adds weight to mental illness, to the idea of getting help, getting treatment.”

The state Office of Public Instruction and several nonprofits sponsored DeShaw’s tour of 12 Montana schools last fall and eight more this spring, said Dylan Klapmeier, OPI communications director. Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, and since the Florida school shooting, Klapmeier said, “Now more than ever it’s important to talk to kids.”

DeShaw told students he was raised in the Plentywood area, one of five boys in a loving family. He grew up hunting, fishing and working on farms and ranches. He joked that he was “half hippy, half cowboy – I reckon I’ve always been a little bipolar.”

After graduating from Carroll College, he started performing country music around the world. In 2012, he was touring in Canada when mental illness hit him like “a great freight train.”

His mind and body were speeding up until he was out of control, and he thought he was the incarnation of Sitting Bull. His family drove nine hours to get him in Saskatchewan and bring him to a psychiatric hospital.

Doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and alcohol addiction. Being bipolar meant he either had immense energy and felt like his brain was on fire, he said, or when the mania ended, he spiraled into the abyss of depression, “the great darkness.”

In high school he once had appendicitis. Since he grew up in a culture where you’re supposed to be self-reliant and not ask for help, he tried to tough it out. His appendix burst. Still it took days before he went to the hospital, by then suffering gangrene.

“That intense pain doesn’t compare to the severe pain of depression,” he said. DeShaw said he was one of the lucky ones because he got help. Today he has a good, caring team – a psychiatrist, nurse practitioner and counselor. If he takes life one day at a time, he said, “if I can just hold on, I might make it to another.”

Some of history’s greatest men have struggled with mental illness and addiction, he said. Without Abraham Lincoln, slavery would have continued, and without Winston Churchill, England would be speaking German.

“You are not alone,” DeShaw told students. “No matter what you face, there is hope.”

He finished with a sing-along to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Students stood, cheered, applauded and whistled approval.

“I think kids really liked him,” senior Erika Meuli said, because they connected to his humor and songs.

Wellness week “means a lot to all of us,” said Heidi Wills, HOSA president. She got tears in her eyes as she spoke. “I’ve had many friends, people I’ve known, who have taken their lives.”

On Tuesday, students wore green — green shirts, green beads, green superhero capes — to show their support. The HOSA organizers made hundreds of hand-written messages to post on students’ lockers, with affirmative messages like “Life is tough, but so are you.”

On Wednesday, students are urged to wear Hawaiian shirts and learn how to handle stress, through activities like meditation, dance, enjoying music and playing with dogs. On Thursday the theme will be physical wellness, including nutrition, sleep and exercise. On Friday the focus will be kindness and “phone-free” fun.

Jason DeShaw sings about seeking help for mental illness at Bozeman High School on Tuesday.

Gail Schontzler/Chronicle


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