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'Music Is Very Healing': Judy Collins Talks Mental Health Awareness and Upcoming Tour With Stephen Stills

Judy Collins
Miller Mobley

Judy Collins

Judy Collins may be known for her musical accomplishments -- her rendition of Joni Mitchell's “Both Sides Now” was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame and “Send in the Clowns,” a ballad by Stephen Sondheim, won the 1975 Grammy Song of the Year -- but she is also an outspoken activist on mental health issues.

Her memoir, Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength, chronicled her survival following the suicide of her son in 1992. Her latest book, Cravings: How I Conquered Food, provides a no-holds barred account of her struggle with compulsive overeating.

This Thursday, Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services will honor the singer-songwriter for her activism with the 2017 Beatrice Stern Media Award at the 21st Anniversary Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards.

"Back when alcoholism, depression, bulimia and suicide were rarely discussed, Judy let others know they weren't alone," said Didi Hirsch's President/CEO Dr. Kita S. Curry, PhD. "Through her books, music and public appearances, she has continued her advocacy for decades. We are proud to honor her for all she's done to replace shame with hope and increase support for mental health care.”

Just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month, Collins talked to Billboard about her decades of commitment to shining light on mental health issues, as well as her upcoming tour and album with Stephen Stills.

You've been very open about your battle with depression and substance abuse and your own suicide attempt when you were younger. Why do you think it's important to put a spotlight on these issues?
Well, ever since I turned 22, I have been thinking about mental health. I got into therapy in 1963, following that suicide attempt when I was in my teens, and I really desperately needed to do a lot of talking and a lot of exploring of what was going on in my life. One of the things that is important about taboos is that the people who can speak about getting through this, getting to the illness before there's compulsive overeating or bulimia or alcoholism or suicide ideology. The more we can share, then it's less taboo.

Now, if we can just get the insurance companies to pay for therapy and mental health treatment. We have a bill now, which was passed, but it's very hard to get the insurance companies to pay for what they ought to.

Your son Clark died by suicide in 1992. Did his passing encourage you to start speaking out about mental health and suicide prevention?
Well I don't think I would have gotten through his death in any kind of healthy way, unless I'd been able to write about it. I started writing about it almost immediately. First I thought, I think I'll write a book that is a 24 hour a day meditation on why we don't take our lives today. Just as simple as that. And then it sort of morphed into something else, because that's the way things are, they kind of take on their own shape as they tell you what they want to be, you know, what they want to do.

At that time my relationship with this book about suicide, Sanity and Grace, came about. I'm told that it's very helpful. I don't really know much about prevention because I don't know. I don't really believe in a lot of drugs, so I'm sort of on the outside of that string of how you address things. My first go-to position is get a nutritionist, get a therapist -- get somebody who doesn't throw pills down your throat. And on the other hand, if you're desperate, and you think you need the help, go get it. And even if it has to be only short term, and you think you need it, go get it.

Mental health is in part learning to be your own advocate and not to be pushed around by either doctors who want to throw a pill at everything, or your own inclination to kind of shut up about it. I think we have to talk about these things. We have to get the help we need. Whether it's talk therapy or group therapy or what ever. And there are lots and lots of solutions out there. You're not alone, a lot of people have similar issues.

Your latest book is Cravings: How I Conquered Food. Would you consider eating disorders mental health issues?
The whole issue of overeating and compulsive overeating and eating disorders is a mental health issue. I mean these are absolutely mental health issues. They're so physically traceable, whether you're talking about diabetes or alcoholism, or being drunk on the food.

Eating disorders are prevalent, whether it's morbid obesity, bulimia, anorexia... Some of the secret eating disorders are just as dangerous and just as life threatening as weighing 500 pounds. And my feeling about this whole eating business is, it's a 38 billion dollar industry. Most people who are dieters bounce in and out. And it's doing huge harm to our whole infrastructure for medical care.

Do you think the stigma associated with mental health disorders has gotten any weaker?
Yes, I think it's much more normal for a person who's got depression to go and get some help with it, and for people to recognize when they see somebody who's depressed or they have somebody in their family. It's not always easy to treat, by any means.

You know when Clark died, there were two books in the stores. One was called The Savage God, which is the story of Sylvia Plath's suicide, which I own. There are no solutions in this book. There's the drama, drama, drama, drama, drama. No suggestion that this could really be something that could be treated.

Then there was a wonderful book written by a woman named Iris Bolton who wrote book called My Son…, My Son... about the death of her son. She's a therapist and she ran a big mental health organization in Atlanta called The Link, and her oldest son took his life, and you know that was a blow to her, but also to the whole community of patients. She wrote about it in the most wonderful book. It saved my life

Through all your advocacy, you've touched so many lives. Have you ever had an encounter with a fan that reaffirmed your commitment to these issues?
A good percentage of us, and that means a good percentage of my fans, are suffering from various kinds of mental illness, whether it's physical, emotional, spiritual, or not. And I think that music is very healing, and a lot of people are drawn to my music because there is an element in it that's very healing. You know it's hard to stay on the planet, and you need to sometimes get a little reinforcement.

People write to me, they communicate with me, they talk to me on Facebook, they grab me after concerts. You know I interchange with them. One of the things that's so terrific about doing the kind of event that I'm doing next week, that you're calling me about, is that usually I get to sign books and that means that I sit and I talk with people about these issues. And it's face to face and it's very very calming.

I never do sign albums after concerts any more, you can't it's too much going on. But when I get the speaking engagements I really do have a chance to interact with people in a very much different way and I talk about my favorite subject. So it's very healing for me, too.

On a lighter note, you have plans to kick off a tour in July with Stephen Stills. You two had a fling once upon a time. Have you always stayed in touch since that?
We have, always. And it's very interesting because we have become much much better friends than we were in those days. We have a very good time, so we're going to have a lot of fun, we're looking forward to it.

That's great. What can fans expect from the show?
Music, I hope. Some guitar, some singing, some stories. Some of the old songs, some of the new ones. I've got a couple of new songs and so does Stephen, and then we'll dip into some of the songs we did, and some of the ones that I did, and so it'll be exciting.

And you're also recording an album together for August. What can you tell me about that?
We'll do our best. We'll try to get as many things on the album as we have in the concerts. We're just starting that recording this coming week, so we've got a lot to figure out, but we've been rehearsing so it sounds pretty good.

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