Rosie Carney was just 15 years old when the record labels came calling. By 16 the U.K.-based singer-songwriter had a deal, rising fame — and an exhausting secret. In public she was a prodigy, balancing high school, recording and writing sessions. Privately, the 5’7″ artist was battling anorexia, plummeting to a frightening 70 pounds.
“I was moments away from being fed through a tube,” Carney said by phone from Munich where she was on tour. “I was physically very tiny. I looked like a child. I begged my parents not to intervene. I didn’t want my label to know because I was so scared of being dropped. I wore clothes that were far too big, hoping people wouldn’t notice.”
As it turned out, the label dropped her anyway. Carney’s health continued to spiral, spurred in part she says by a “toxic” boyfriend who ridiculed her. She tears up recalling how her anguished parents kept packing nutritious lunches for her day after day, which she’d then quietly “toss in the bin” once at school.
“It was like a demon,” she said of the anorexia. “It grabs who you are and pulls you under.” Just weeks before graduation she dropped out of school. “When I wasn’t in the studio I was at home or in hospital.”
Now 22, in recovery, and with a much-praised debut album Bare, Carney is among several artists who will gather on stage Monday night (May 13) at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn as part of Sound Mind: A Mental Health Benefit Concert.
The first-of-its-kind music industry fundraiser, co-sponsored by the New York City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, also stars Langhorne Slim and Torres, and aims to end the secrecy and discrimination associated with mental health.
“I don’t want to overstate this, but I really believe this is the last big thing,” says NAMI-NYC’s executive director Matt Kudish of topics still in the societal closet.
And what many people do discuss, Kudish says, is often fueled by stereotypes and pop culture cliches — making it that much more difficult to educate the public. “People think they know more than they actually do.”
Kudish says common mental health diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and eating disorders “are typically either minimized or demonized. Think about how we casually throw around words like ‘I’m depressed’ or I’m having a panic attack.’ On the other end of the spectrum we conflate mental illness with violence.” At the movies and on television, he says, “We don’t see people with mental illness living rich rewarding lives.”
Monday’s benefit will also feature comedian-actress Aparna Nancherla, standup comedian Gary Gulman and spoken word activist Rage Almighty. All the performers are expected to include stories of personal struggle. Langhorne Slim, who has spoken openly about his anxiety and depression, said in a statement that the stigma around mental health “is one of our greatest human tragedies.”
Chris Bullard, founder of the event and of the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Sound Mind Live, said he envisions this and future Sound Mind concerts transforming views of mental health much in the way Willie Nelson brought attention to the plight of the American family farm with Farm Aid.
“I don’t want to have a concert just to raise money,” said Bullard. “There’s a much bigger opportunity to elevate the conversation. Ideally everyone will leave talking not just about the music, but about what mental health means in their own lives.”
Bullard, a former touring musician, now works by day for nonprofit fundraiser Acumen and has called on his expertise in both music and philanthropy to line up blue-chip sponsors including HBO and MusicCares for this first Sound Mind event. Another benefit is planned for October.
“When I was at a previous employer I had a manic episode and when I returned five days later, I felt compelled to lie about it,” said Bullard. He told co-workers he had “a vitamin deficiency” when he was really being treated for bipolar disorder. “That may be the case for people in the audience at our concert — that they’re feeling that same inner stigma.”
Both he and Kudish point to alarming figures about lack of mental health care in the U.S., as well as lack of information for the loved ones of those suffering.
“There’s lot of data that shows when family members are educated recovery is exponentially improved,” says Kudish.
As for Carney, who toured the U.S. last year— enduring long drives, gas station pit stops and navigating the terrible meals that go with them — she says “the whole food thing still comes up,” but now when negative thoughts creep in, “I dismiss them.”
“Don’t get me wrong — I still have days when I feel anxious.” She wants people to know there has been no instant cure, that rebuilding her life “little by little” took work, and recovery for others is within reach.
“It was like wearing a really horrible heavy coat,” she says of her darkest days. “Eventually you just want to rip it off. Sometimes I still feel like I’m wearing that heavy coat again — but now I just take it off and hang it up.”
Sound Mind: A Mental Benefit Concert will be presented Monday May 13 at 8 p.m. at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn. General admission is $40. Doors open at 7 p.m. VIP tickets, including artist meet and greet, are $100 and can be purchased at www.soundmindlive.org.
NAMI-NYC provides education and support programming free of charge to more than 13,000 New York metropolitan-area families and individuals living with mental illness. For help call 212-684-3264 or visit www.naminyc.org. NAMI-NYC is the largest chapter of the hundreds of local chapters nationwide of www.nami.org.