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Professional drummer speaks on his struggle with mental illness

| Tuesday, October 3, 2017

As part of the “Irish State of MiND: Mental Illness Awareness Week” sponsored by Active Minds, professional drummer Mike Veny spoke on his experiences of mental illness and how to combat the stigma surrounding the subject Monday night.

The stigma involves “thoughts, feelings and behavior” and affects people in diverse ways, Veny said.

“Where does stigma come from? It’s a giant debate, but I want to give you two observations that I’ve had,” he said. “One, is the law of the tribe. We are tribal people by nature, even if you’re one of those people who hates people and doesn’t want to be around anyone.

“You can see where stigma starts in a kindergarten classroom. The way we learn to socialize with each other is by figuring out who’s in the group and who’s not in the group.”

Veny said the stigma surrounding mental illness may also come from people’s inability to understand it.

“The other thing is to realize that mental health issues are confusing and frustrating,” he said. “They’re very confusing, even to people who study them.”

Beginning from a young age, Veny said, he experienced mental illness, including OCD, anxiety and depression. He was expelled from school twice, self-harmed and had attempted suicide.

One day, Veny said, his mother asked him what made him happy, in an effort to help him combat his mental illness. His answer? Drumming. In response, his mother enrolled him in a performing arts high school as a junior, Veny said.

“So there I was amongst my fellow artists and my medication started to get reduced, I started going to the doctor less, my grades started going up,” he said. “It was really cool. And people started wanting to be my friend. Like when I started playing the drums, people wanted to be my friend. They thought I was cool. I wasn’t the weird, crazy person anymore.”

One day while in class, one of Veny’s teachers started talking down to him and Veny said he expected to react in a way that would get him expelled.

“But one day, in October — around this time actually — I did have this one teacher who was just nasty to me,” he said. “He spoke down to me and I got triggered and I knew that it was done. It was like ‘Here we are. This is happening. Police, suspended, expelled — something’s going to happen.’”

However, he said, he decided to play the drums in a practice room instead. He said he used this method to calm down in other situations and eventually, one of his teachers asked him “a question that changed [his] life.” The teacher wanted to hire Veny to play in the teacher’s band.

“That moment, the lightbulb went off in my head,” Veny said. “When I got emotional, angry, upset, depressed, anxious and did the other thing, I ended up in the hospital, with police, suspended or expelled. But when I got anxious or depressed and played the drums, people want to give me money. And it was at that point, I said ‘Oh, I think I know what my career needs to be.’”

Veny said even though drumming helped him cope with his mental illness, he still carried stigma surrounding it for many years.

“I realized, as I was learning about stigma online, that stigma is actually a cycle, that starts with shame, leads to silence and the silence leads to four things: sabotage, self-destructive behavior, social injustice and suicide,” he said.

Veny said the key to transforming the shame of stigma is to practice self-care.

“The thing that I learned is … once I started to take care of myself, I started to feel better,” he said. “So I encourage all of you to transform shame through self-care.”

To break the silence around mental illness, Veny said, people should become comfortable talking about the subject. Veny said he did an experiment for one year — though he made audience members promise not to recreate it — where he introduced himself to people and told them he was mentally ill.

“That year was really interesting because not a single person ran from me, no one attacked me, I actually got a lot of hugs,” he said. “I got a lot of questions. And I got a lot of friends that year. … I realized it wasn’t the subject. I was comfortable with myself, so it didn’t matter what I said.”

The way to defeat the last part of stigma is to connect with others, Veny said.

“How do you transform sabotage, social injustice, suicidal behavior?” he said. “How do you transform that? Connecting with others. You have to force yourself to connect with others. We live in a world that’s all about cell phones. We don’t ever sit around and do stuff and people have a harder time socializing today than ever before. It’s really important for all of us to do that.”

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