Former Barenaked Ladies Frontman Steven Page Visiting Windsor to Chat About Mental Health

Steven_PageSteven Page is best known as the fun comedic frontman of Canada’s Barenaked Ladies, but the singer, who’s spent the last 10 years on a notable solo career, still has a lot more to say.

In 2011 he revealed that he suffers from bipolar disorder and that he has gone through periods of self-medicating in order to relieve the symptoms. Since leaving Barenaked Ladies in 2009, he has been able to focus more on managing and treating his illness and has cited his songs as being his source of strength for keeping healthy and continuing treatment.

His latest album Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II was released last year with the leadoff single White Noise and he’s been speaking openly about mental health at speaking engagements.

He’ll be speaking, and performing, at The Canadian Mental Health Association Windsor-Essex County Breakfast of Champions on May 7. He spoke with 519 about mental health and how music has helped him through his journey.

Does speaking about your own issues help you in some way?

I guess it does in some ways. I usually go into some of these events thinking ‘who am I to be talking to people about my story, what does it matter and is this something that just I’m just doing this for my own sense or my own mental wellness,’ but at the end of the day I do these events and the just feed off the feeling in the room. It makes it all worth it.

The fact that you can open yourself up and be vulnerable around people who are also either experiencing those same kinds of issues, have a past issue themselves or they have family members or co-workers and they just don’t know how to talk to them about it. Those are huge issues to have and open up about.

They say that one in five people suffer from mental health struggles and that’s just the one in five who actually admits it. We all deal with it because we are surrounded by it. We live a normal life with people who are struggling, whether it’s with very serious problems and mental health struggles like schizophrenia or there are the very common ones of depression and anxiety. Every one of those mental health conditions can kill. When people take their own lives or make horrible life-ending decisions when they’re suffering from the same depression and anxiety that everybody else sometimes suffers from, I’ve learned to take it seriously. I think some of that rubs off on other people and it gives other people the opportunity to speak out about their own struggles and I’m happy to be able to do that.

That’s a gift that has been given to me to be able to help other people with that.

When did you first discover you had a mental health issue?

I guess I was in my early 20s when I was diagnosed first, but apart from taking medications on and off, I really didn’t take it particularly seriously until I was in my 30s. I think one of the things that made me look the wrong way at my depression was that I saw it as almost like a badge of honor, like I was the tortured artist. It was somehow, something romantic and if I took too much medication, I might lose what made me special as an artist. It’s all rubbish, but it took me a long time to come to terms with that and it’s time I wasted.

Then I realized it’s not because of my mental health issues that I am an artist. I’m an artist because that was what I came up with to combat my mental health struggles. Looking back, I realize now that music has been the thing that kept me going. I seek appropriate treatment and take care of myself better now and I’m more productive than I ever was.

Do you think that it was hard for you in the position that you’re in for people to believe that you had a mental health issue?

I bet you’re right. I bet people did think it was some kind of a curtain. You might be okay with showing some symptoms in front of other people, but sometimes those symptoms might make people find you unreliable and that is terrifying.

Whether you’re running a business like the Barenaked Ladies or a bank, if your mental health issues are getting in the way or people are afraid that those mental health issues might get in the way of other people’s livelihoods, safety or security, then you’re going to want to hide it. That’s where stigma comes in and that’s what we’re in the process now trying to shift the perceptions about.

We can live productive, satisfying lives and we are learning to get through those issues. They’re always fixed – people always expect a quick fix. People who aren’t suffering with mental health issues tell you to go get some help and then come back once you’re on your medication or whatever else and pick up where we left off. That’s not always how it goes. It really is up to the person who is suffering to learn their own boundaries and that can be a difficult thing for the rest of the world to catch up with.

I know my husband had that really bad bout of depression. He was medicated to a point where I really didn’t recognize him anymore. Did you ever struggle with medication like that?

Absolutely! That the thing really. Not every medication works the same way for every person and that’s exactly what happened to me. When I first was diagnosed, I went to the doctor and he gave me a prescription and I took it for a while and felt kind of numb. I didn’t feel like myself and eventually I stopped taking them, or I took them long enough to feel like okay now I feel better, and I stopped taking them without working with a doctor’s help.

They either taper you off or find a different medication, but there are lots of different treatments out there. For some people, medication isn’t the answer. Sometimes medication is something to help you to just get out of bed. You can couple it with other practices, whether it’s therapeutic, talk therapies or just diet and exercise or whatever else works, but work with professionals. Also if the professional you’re working with – whether it’s your family doctor or it’s a psycho therapist or a psychiatrist – and if they’re not listening to you, go find somebody else.

You have the right as a patient to find the care that you need, and what happens so often, and I could speak to this personally, is that you take medications that doesn’t work or make you feel worse in a certain way and It turns you off of taking care of yourself. What you end up doing is just kind of playing Russian roulette.

We’ve had the same thing happen to us. We’re actually leery about seeing doctors because we’ve had so many negative or bad experiences with them not listening to what’s happening.

It’s really frustrating and I think it’s really hard to see a psychiatrist. But if you’re looking to get medication, you need to get it from a psychiatrist or you can get it from your family doctor. Your family doctor is dealing with a million other conditions from a lot of other patients too, so they may not be as up-to-date or have antidotal evidence as someone who works strictly with mental health issues.

With a psychiatrist, sometime you have to wait eight to 10 months to be able to see one and then it kind of feels like you’re going to audition for them and show them if you’re sick enough for their time. It shouldn’t be like that.

I spoke with Brian Wilson a couple months back and it was pretty obvious that he was still having a hard time with the issues that he has, but you guys are connected by that song.

I wrote that song when I was 19 or 20. It was not really about depression at the time because I hadn’t been diagnosed yet. I didn’t fully realize that the song truly is about depression.

It was about the power of music to help lift you out of that. I have since had the opportunity several times to get to meet Brian and even sing with him, which has been a huge thrill, but there is a connection for sure. I have always felt connected to his story in a way. That’s really what the song is about. “Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II” has a lot to say. Your lyrics are still – and will always be witty, but this time you have an edge to what you’re saying.

I think that edge has always been there, but I got angry when I see people who are being victimized and that’s the thing that bothers me that most. That’s how you get a song like White Noise or I get angry at myself for things which has always been a theme in my songs, but I think that’s something people can relate to: your frustration with not living up to your expectations of yourself.

I don’t feel half as angry as I used to when I was a younger man, that’s for sure. Life has been pretty good to me.

Tickets to the Breakfast of Champions are $50 each and are available at windsoressex.cmha.ca.

Photo: David_Bergman