Business

Austin's SIMS Foundation Wants to Take Musician Mental Healthcare Nationwide

Austin, Texas
Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

Austin, Texas

Saxophonist Carlos Sosa has been on the board of directors of the health services nonprofit SIMS Foundation for seven years, but it wasn’t until he performed at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, where a gunman killed 59 people and injured another 800, that he realized just how crucial the organization could be. When Sosa returned to Austin with post-traumatic stress disorder, he and his family received support from SIMS, which had already been providing him and his spouse with subsidized therapy since 2006 to cope with the stresses of touring.

"I'd never experienced anything like it," he says. "It gave me more reasons than ever to do whatever I can to push SIMS Foundation."

As touring resumes around the country, the nonprofit is looking ahead to the mental health problems that could come with it. Founded in the wake of Texas musician Sims Ellison's 1995 suicide, for almost three decades the SIMS Foundation has taken care of Austin’s musicians, touring professionals and — unlike many similar nonprofits around the country — their family members by connecting them to free or discounted mental health services funded by government grants or private donors.

Since most musicians don’t have health benefits or, in some cases, even steady income, while often managing erratic schedules and working in regular proximity to alcohol and drugs, this has allowed thousands of artists to receive help who would not have otherwise. In 2019, SIMS' six-person staff aided almost 900 clients in Austin by facilitating nearly 2,000 days of substance use treatment and over 12,500 counseling sessions. Now, it’s trying to take the initiative nationwide. 

Executive director Patsy Bouressa says SIMS regularly receives calls from "well-intentioned people" wanting to create a similar program in their areas, "knowing that their music community desperately needed such services." But the amount of work involved is intimidating.

In July, SIMS launched a fundraising campaign in an effort to expand its services — first to Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, then to Detroit; Denver; Boulder, Colo.; and Raleigh, N.C. The Founders Challenge, as it has been dubbed, was initiated in late 2020 by founder and father of Sims Ellison, Don Ellison, who wanted to expand the organization’s reach. The elder Ellison sadly passed away months later in April 2021, passing the torch and challenge onto the other three founders and the growing foundation.

"When the pandemic hit, exponentially more people contacted us in need of care," says Bouressa. So "we’ve been exploring ways to expand." 

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2021, issue of Billboard.