Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit
Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit
Jean Claude Billmaier

Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos on His Fight to Make Mental Health Care Accessible for Artists

by Ilana Kaplan
July 27, 2017, 3:38pm EDT

Michael Angelakos can’t stop moving his hands. With every word out of his mouth, his coffee eyes light up as if he won a prize at the state fair and he gestures as if he’s telling the greatest story ever told. In a way, he is. Sitting across the table from Angelakos in the rustic Mediterranean eatery Mezetto, the Passion Pit ringleader is opening up for the first time about what he’s been working on privately for the past year: The Wishart Group, a company dedicated to spreading mental health awareness and providing “legal, educational and healthcare services” to artists.

Angelakos believes in fate. On April 7, 2017, the World Health Organization proclaimed that “there is no health without mental health” the same day Angelakos’ Grandma Wishart passed away. The artist services group is dedicated to Angelakos’ grandmother. “My great grandmother was a poet, orator, and she taught English and History; Her knowledge of world history became pretty useful when, after leaving my great-grandfather and gaining custody of my grandmother, she kept her ex-husband’s name,” Angelakos explains. “Upon arriving in America, it was changed to Wishard, but it was originally Wishart.” The 1930s only complicated matters for a single mother with a daughter in central Pennsylvania. “She kept the name to protect herself,” notes the 30-year-old musician. “My grandmother was amazing. She was a very early mental health advocate without actually understanding it -- she didn't need to, she just was.”

Back in 2012, Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos had every reason to be on top of the world -- he was on the cusp of dropping his sophomore album Gossamer. Right before its release, Angelakos cancelled his tour dates and issued a statement explaining why: his mental health. In-between that time he had been in a mental health facility getting treatment. Touring was an obligation -- something he “hated” that took a toll on him, but he was unwilling to neglect his feelings, regardless of the "consequences." “I started sharing all this stuff and it scared and confused people,” he explains. Suffering in silence was no longer an option. “I actually never wanted to be a frontman of a band -- I just ended up that way,” he explains. “I want to help people. It’s the opposite of what I thought I was gonna be doing -- I thought I’d be touring.”

Although it had been weaved within his lyrics, it was then he decided to publicly open up about his own struggles with depression and bipolar disorder, something he had been dealing with since 17. The Manners follow up recounted a manic episode he endured, and it began as a way for Angelakos to unpack what had happened to him. At that point, Angelakos had disclosed several suicide attempts he had gone through, one even involving his then fiancee (and later wife) tackling him to prevent him from jumping out of a window. On Gossamer he showed the determination to himself and his wife that he would get better (“Just believe in me, Kristina / All these demons, I can beat them”). Later that year, he spoke out about the harm of romanticizing depression and its damage for artists. Since then, Angelakos has made it a point to have open conversations normalizing the realities of living with mental health issues.

“Stigma is what most of this is about: it’s one of the most fundamental human rights issues,” he says. “The reason that certain things in my career didn't happen is the stigma -- and it’s not anyone’s fault.” A lot of that stigma comes from fear (“If I’m sitting at a table talking about suicide, I’m looking for the reactions -- first it’s a spike in interest, then a slow tapering of it because it’s impossible to comprehend. I’m trying to figure out what the narrative for clinicians and scientists ought to be”). Now Angelakos is trying to eliminate the stigma for others. If you didn't know he was a musician, you’d think he was a scientist. He’s been so immersed in learning about treating mental health struggles that he throws out statistics like it’s been his life’s work (“Women understand bipolar completely. For many reasons, including misogynism, women made up 60-70 percent of those diagnosed with bipolar -- today it’s supposedly about the 50/50”). In a way, it has. Interestingly enough, right before Passion Pit took off, Angelakos was in the process of working with mentors at Emerson College, preparing his work to eventually transfer to MIT’s media lab. 

But smarts are just the half of it. It’s also empathy. “The people that are the most vulnerable are perceived as scary and untrustworthy, and the people that generate the most content need to be controlled,” he says. “To exhibit behaviors that illustrate someone is out of control, like me, erratic behavior and throwing stuff up online and examining what the reaction is, is the action.”

Angelakos has been working to destigmatize mental illness behind the scenes for years. In 2015 his efforts gradually began going public with a PSA #StrongerThanStigma for Glenn Close’s mental illness education nonprofit, Bring Change 2 Mind. Later in the year, Angelakos had a candid conversation with Bret Easton Ellis where he publicly came out as bisexual and discussed the media’s trivialization of his mental health issues. Earlier this year, Angelakos announced with limited details that he had been hard at work forming The Wishart Group. He proceeded to drop new singles along with a video of him receiving treatment, had neuroscientist Michael F. Wells take over his Twitter account to educate the public on mental illness with #weneedscience and offered up the album Tremendous Sea Of Love for free if fans retweeted him encouraging Wells’ work (something that will be available digitally on Friday, July 28). Of Tremendous Sea Of Love, Angelakos tweeted, “Tremendous Sea of Love is an album for us, for me and for you.”

It’s a project of empathy, love, understanding and hope -- it’s a way to get people to pay attention. In contemplating what he was going to do with all of his followers, he decided to treat his Twitter account like a channel. “These companies spend millions of dollars for depersonalization, and it worked [for me],” explains Angelakos of his #weeneedscience social media initiative. “It became Tumblr. It’s insane.

“What Wishart Group is going to do, is give away things that are very convenient, like music, to make money for things you care about,” he explains. “You donate a revenue generating asset, and you get a tax write-off. All artists have tax problems. How about reduce that rate? It’s like making money and reducing stress.”

Now, Angelakos is finally ready to disclose what The Wishart Group is all about. The Wishart Group creates and houses nonprofit and for-profit services and programs. It was created to build protective services and benefit programs for musical artists and professionals. It’s supposed to be a catalyst for other companies and industries to adopt its practices as well. The holding company’s first focus is on a non-profit organization that leverages unused or shelved content to help artists use their powerful positions for good. Angelakos’ project creates a way for artists to donate intellectual property or revenue streams to nonprofits or institutions in need of funding.

The group develops solutions, addressing every single problem I’ve had as a musician, person in the media industry, as a citizen and a person with mental health issues -- all of which I have found to be very common or pretty universal,” says Angelakos. Alongside Angelakos, Small Girls PR co-founder Bianca Caampued has partnered with him and Broad Institute neuroscientist Michael F. Wells and David Haggerty (among others he can’t legally mention yet). Angelakos and Wells first interacted on Facebook, discussing an article on mental health and music that I had written. The social media conversation resulted in a face-to-face meeting where Angelakos went to visit Wells at Harvard University. Wells proceeded to show Angelakos the visualization of a neuron, he cried, and their bond was formed. The same reaction Angelakos had is what he wanted people who deal with mental illness to have: he wanted them to be hopeful. Angelakos was so impressed by the research Wells had done that he wanted to help Wells and other scientists better communicate their findings to the world. “Michael [Wells] is a neuroscientist at one of the most powerful psychiatric research facilities in the world,” says Angelakos. “He’s trying to save my life -- he’s trying to save lives.” To Angelakos, Wells is the kind of person who could lead with Angelakos’ help. Thus became an inadvertent marketing opportunity that is solely meant to benefit people all around.

The importance of The Wishart Group extends far beyond Angelakos. Unfortunately for many creatives and musicians, the lack of resources, accessibility for care, label demands and anxiety over damaging their image often fuel the idea that they must trek on without getting the help they need. Frustrated by watching musicians around him in pain, Angelakos is fighting against the stigma of mental illness. But he's doing more than speaking out about it: he's putting a plan into action to provide services to musicians who are battling their own mental health issues.

Often artists are mocked or not taken seriously when they're publicly battling their demons. Sinead O’Connor’s disappearances and social media rants were laughed off, Britney Spears’ head-shaving breakdown became internet fodder. Artists like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington suffered from mental health issues -- often it was something they sang about and found release for in their music, but mostly it leaves us wondering how we and the music industry can change. Perhaps things would have been different if the industry took mental health struggles and addiction seriously. That’s what The Wishart Foundation is trying to do. He wants other artists to speak up so that they can get help and encourage others to get the help they need. “I can tell if someone’s bipolar from a mile away -- I mean that in a nice way,” he jokes. “I know the people that are very famous who have bipolar disorder. I know who has other things that are misdiagnosed. It doesn't matter. But there are some great people that could be spokespeople for mental health. That’s what I’m trying to figure out -- the privacy issues have less to do with an individual’s privacy as much as they speak to legal and ethical issues with the clinical, research, and then big pharma and insurance worlds. If patients simply disclosed more information, we’d at least know what it looked like to get help. Or we’d at least know what a neural cell looked like, the very thing we’re examining here for all of this.”

While Angelakos has been the most outspoken about his mental health history, other artists have begun breaking barriers by voicing their struggles, whether that be opening up about their personal battles and how they coped or even by announcing they needed time off from music. With Paramore’s new record out, lead singer Hayley Williams opened up about dealing with depression and leaving Paramore temporarily. Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino has talked about treating her anxiety and how she made life changes to help her mental health. Halsey opened up about the effects of her bipolar disorder and the fetishization of mental illness. In early 2017, Modern Baseball announced on social media that they needed cancel a tour because they had been ignoring their own mental health, something that was exacerbated after the 2016 presidential election. Admitting that an artist needs time to recover isn’t easy, but it’s an admirable, self-caring action that more musicians should be able to take. Unfortunately not every band or artist feels like they can do that -- and many worry they don't have the resources.

In short, Angelakos' Wishart Group is something needed now more than ever; it’s a way to try giving musicians the resources they need through a private sector. There are few unions for musicians. They have AFM, the best-known musicians union, but many musicians are not in it, do not use the service for medical purposes, or don’t even make enough money to qualify for those services. Vocalists can have SAG-AFTRA, so if you sing you get the same benefits as the acting community. Only in these specific instances are you included in a union, a rarity in the music industry. “We need to help musicians develop a system for themselves,” explains Angelakos. “[Artists] don’t want to screw up a whole industry: they just want help.

“If they want to keep making music, maybe they should try something different that shows, ‘we care about ourselves.’” The idea supports the notion that if people are healthier, they’re going to buy more products. “Talking doesn't work, I wish it did,” he says. “You act.”

With The Wishart Group, Angelakos strives to normalize the conversation around mental illness and magnify the strength it takes to talk about your feelings. In doing this, he’ll continue to be an artist as he always has been, but as announced earlier this week, he's leaving the industry to make it better for others in the community. “I don’t care if I’m the one who successfully does it -- I care that I’m the one who starts it,” he says.

Angelakos will be hosting a live Facebook Q&A on Friday at Facebook’s HQ to coincide with the digital release of his album Tremendous Sea Of Love. Join in here.

For any mental health questions, concerns and treatment options, reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Health hotline from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.: 1-800-950-NAMI.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255.