Photo: Brendan Walter
Jewel On Advocating For Mental Health In The Age Of COVID-19
A listen into Jewel’s catalog —one in which you’ll find guitars stringing out everything from bare folk songs to country-influenced tunes and light, upbeat pop-infused tracks under a soothing, soft voice that can easily turn powerfully emotive —and you’ll come across several lyrics that will stop you in your tracks and make you think about the now.
For instance, never have lines like "In the end only kindness matters" ("Hands") given you a warmer invite to your own reflection party where you ponder the most humane way to navigate life during a pandemic.
In her latest single "Grateful," off her forthcoming album, Jewel continues to deliver the kind of hopefulness she’s shared throughout her career. “It’s all the little things that make the world go ‘round/ It’s all the little things that are almost powerful,” she sings in the feel-good mellow track.
But these times have also called the thoughtful GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter, who’s celebrating the 25 the anniversary of her 1995 debut Pieces Of You, an album that propelled her to become both a voice and songwriter of her time, this year, to give a cause she’s been championing for a long time an even greater push.
Jewel has been an advocate for mental health for years and now, and right now mental health wellness is at stake for many across the country. More than 45 percent of adults feel the coronavirus pandemic has caused a negative impact on their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. That's up from 32 percent recorded in early March.
Mental health wellness hits close to home for the singer who grew up in an abusive home and faced homelessness at a point in her life. The personal work to help herself cope through it all, she tells the Recording Academy, is paying off now.
"I'm really thankful I invested for the last 25 or last 30 years in learning how to meditate and self-regulate and be comfortable in my own brain because it makes this type of time a lot more comfortable," she says.
Jewel’s Inspiring Children Foundation supports youth facing mental health challenges by empowering them through resources and educational opportunities and continues to provide these resources at a time they may face greater challenges. She also shares tips, stories and resources surrounding mental health through her Jewel Never Broken website as well as through a weekly livestream series she is calling Live From San Quarantine Speaker Series—yes that’s a Johnny Cash reference.
"I think people who go through things like I did, we all have a tendency, a need to complete the circle, to give back, you know? We know how hard and grueling and lonely and frightening it is," she says about why she works to provide resources. "If you can relieve anybody else's experience, it's well worth it."
But she's not done there. A forthcoming documentary focusing on mental health called MINDFULNESS MOVEMENT she created with Deepak Chopra will be released directly on April 10, although Jewel had to re-strategize the release a bit. "It's such a perfect time ... the topic couldn't be more perfect," she says.
Jewel spoke to the Recording Academy about the inspiration behind “Grateful,” how she’s coping through the pandemic, her mental health work and the inspiration behind it, how Johnny Cash is helping her find creativity and humor in her livestream series and more.
How are you?
I was just about to ask you the same thing. I'm doing well. I'm really thankful I invested for the last 25 or last 30 years in learning how to meditate and self regulate and be comfortable in my own brain because it makes this type of time a lot more comfortable, I think. It's kind of nice to see your hard work pay off.
Right, because the pandemic is about public health, but it's also very much about mental health and you've been advocating for mental health wellness for years. How is it advocating for mental health at this moment in time?
I think there's a silver lining to anything. When we're in great pain, we look for solutions. We're highly motivated. And we've been in pain for a long time prior to this pandemic. Suicide rates were up 70 percent since 2006, that's a high number. That was pre-pandemic. Typically suicide rates double during a recession. Let's see, last year there were 1.4 million suicide attempts, so if you've double that number, you're looking at the death toll possibly being greater for mental health ramifications than from the virus possibly. Those are really sobering numbers and numbers nobody is really talking about.
Like I said, we've been in pain a long time prior to this and that's why you've seen opioid addiction rates spike, you see suicide rates spike, bullying may too. Gun violence, I think all of these really come back to mental health issues. We've been seeing this as a crisis. I don't know that everybody's been seeing what I think is the common denominator, which is mental health. I think that's really where we should be focusing our time to make an impact on all of these seemingly divergent problems. The common denominator to me is our mental health and emotional health.
That's a really interesting point. What are your thoughts about mental health not being at the center or that not being paid attention to enough?
Well often, if you just look at paradigms of thinking, let's just look at Western medicine, which I love. It saved my life. I love Western medicine, but it does typically treat the symptom, it doesn't look at a cure. Our thought systems are often around our symptoms. If we look under symptoms, we start to look at common denominators. I don't think we're often taught or encouraged to in our jobs in the media, we're siloed. You just have to look at systems of thought. We tend to think in terms of acute symptoms and addressing those versus underlying causes.
It's just a paradigm of thought we've been engaged in for a long time. You can't blame us for perceiving things that way. We do though, I think, have to start looking underneath because these are complex problems. How can you regulate guns? We're realizing that's an almost impossible thing to get done. What if we focused our energy on mental health? What if we doubled down on that, tripled down on that, quadrupled down on that and saw that if we invested there, homelessness, [the] MeToo [movement,] gun violence, opioid addiction, suicide rates could all start to be relieved.
Your Inspiring Children Foundation helps at-risk youth cope with mental health in particular. Why target them?
It's harder for them to advocate for themselves. They need people to advocate for them. Don't get me wrong, I know a lot of adults, we can all use some advocacy, but it's just how it organically started. I felt like there was a fundamental paradoxical flaw in philanthropy and that often our intention to give is very well-meaning, but when you're on the receiving end of it, you often can have this paradoxical effect of that. It makes you feel bad about yourself. It doesn't feel good. I've been on the receiving end of toy drives, for instance, in Alaska when I was young and I watched the moms and how they responded and they were thankful for the gifts, but at the same time, it made them feel shame all at the same time.
I was curious, how could we relieve that in a foundation. The way we tackled it with Inspiring Children is we don't give anything but skillsets, people want skillsets more than anything, but it's one of the hardest things to give because it's easier to give money than to develop curriculum than to develop and invest in kids to help them build new thinking, new paradigms of thought. That's work-intensive. It's not as easily scalable. To me, it's where the real reward is. It's been a real joy, for myself. I moved out at 15. I came from an abusive background. I was homeless. I was leveraged, I ended up homeless because I wouldn't sleep with the boss and I didn't have resources. I didn't have access to therapists. I didn't have a family support group. I refused to believe that I should kill myself because of it. I don't know why, but I never wanted to. I believed happiness was mine for the taking if I could just figure out how to do it.
The reason I developed my skill sets, my exercises, was just out of pure necessity. I didn't want to kill myself. That meant I had to say, "What am I going to do differently today than I did yesterday? Because I'm miserable. I can't go on like this. I have to do something different today and take notes, see how it affected me. Did it make me feel better? Did it not?" In that process I was able to bring myself through, I knew I was rewiring my brain. Recently, it's neat, a neuroscientist named Dr. Judson Brewer proved how these exercises actually do rewire your brain. Now that we know much more about neuro-plasticity, starving old neural networks, building new ones, what it takes, I'm really proud that the tools I developed for myself can be given to anybody no matter what your background is, no matter what your education is.
I wanted to see if that was really, really true. Putting it to work in the foundation, our kids are, they have suicidal ideation. Most of them have had suicide attempts and they have nothing but this curriculum as well as we teach them entrepreneurial skills and we give them a tennis racket. We had a Twitch concert [this week] and if you hear these kids talk, I mean you just wouldn't believe what they've come through. They haven't had the chance to have therapy. All they've had is access to these tools and they're motivated to change. They want to right? That's something you can't give anybody. They do the work, but it can transform them.
There is a ton of hope to have scalable tools that go beyond meditation, what I call mindfulness in movement. How can you create actions and practices that rewire your brain? Otherwise, we sit in meditation, which is great, and it will build folds in your frontal lobe in eight weeks and it will shrink your medulla. If we can't figure out how to rewire our habits, we're only going to feel good maybe while we're meditating, it won't change our experience. To me, that's what I'm interested in.
Once you built your platform as a singer, as a songwriter, was it natural for you to become an advocate of mental health?
I think people who go through things like I did, we all have a tendency, a need to complete the circle, to give back, you know? We know how hard and grueling and lonely and frightening it is. If you can relieve anybody else's experience, it's well worth it. I would've killed to have that type of help and the help I did receive always meant the world to me. Yeah, I think an act of power is an action that benefits yourself and your community. That would probably describe a tool kit. It benefits me, it's changed my life and if it can benefit my community then that's the circle, complete circle.
You have a lot of great resources on JewelNeverBroken.com. Tell me the story behind the website.
Sure. When I wrote Never Broken, it's a memoir. I just wrote it to let people know that you can keep standing up, and one of the best talents you can have—when I look at all my talents, whatever they are, my number one best talent is that I'm willing. That sounds so funny, but it's true. The thing that I really attribute to me feeling better, being happy, is just that I was always willing to try, always willing to learn, always willing to keep going, always willing to keep standing up. It doesn't take particular intelligence. It takes stubbornness, I think. And I wanted to share that with people. I wanted to show people that the tremendous amount of setbacks I had from abuse to betrayal to you name it, you can be okay, you really can heal. You really can be more than just your story.
And I mentioned these exercises. I didn't get specific, I just said, I did things. I mentioned a few in the book, but people started really asking me a lot, "But wait, what exercises? What are you talking about?" And so it caused me to really get specific and write them down and create content, little videos so that I could really share them. And that's what inspired me to build jewelneverbroken.com. Also knowing that these are the tools we give our foundation to use. They've been tried and trued and practiced to great success. Last year, 99 percent of our kids earned their own college scholarships and 90 percent of them were Ivy League level. I don't know another foundation that can say that. I'm very proud of that. That's their work, but it also shows that we can do a ton with very little resources. Our kids run our foundation. They do all the video editing, the marketing, a lot of the ground roots efforts around fundraising. Because it teaches them they're capable and that fixes self-esteem issues. Right? Once you learn you're capable, you're like, wait a minute, I have value. And they don't feel like they're getting a handout, so it fixes that paradoxical reflux, if you will, that can happen with a lot of philanthropic efforts. And the kids run that site largely. So when you see the curated content, the articles, the community, a lot of that's our kids curating that, things that help them as well.
That's super awesome. And I know that another way you'll be passing tips on wellness is through your livestream called Live from San Quarantine. Are you paying homage to Johnny Cash with that title? Are you a fan?
(Laughs) I was, yeah. We needed a name for this. All of a sudden, we lost all our funding, our ability to fundraise for our youth foundation. Our budget's probably $1.8 million a year. And now, we couldn't do the fundraising concerts we've always relied on to get our funding. And we were scrambling because 95 percent of our parents lost their jobs instantly in the first two weeks of the crisis. And we were scrambling for housing and food for our kids. And so, I think three or four days prior to the Live San Quarantine concert, we came up with the concept, just as all of us like, "All right, what can we do? How can we keep the lights on?" And I wanted a name that was just, I don't know, had some humor. I don't think self-work should be precious. It drives me nuts when it is. So I wanted a name that had some levity. And Johnny Cash singing to the prisoners, we're all in our own way prisoners in our own minds and we're now being quarantined, so I thought it was a cute title.
It's an awesome title. You have a new single out called "Grateful." What's the inspiration behind this one?
It was inspired by anxiety, oddly. Something I learned when I was homeless was that, again, through this trial and error of, "What can I do to feel better? What makes me feel bad?" Taking notes. I learned there's only two basic states of being. There's dilated, open, where we feel open and calm, and then there's contracted, where we feel tight. And I learned that every thought, every feeling, and every action lead to one of those two states. So anger, fear, jealousy, greed, anxiety, worry, obsession, etc., lead to contraction. Joy, gratitude, observation, curiosity, generosity, all lead to dilation. And so, when I was anxious, all I had to do is notice my body's tight, helps me out in a contracted state, I'm getting anxious, and I could hack my way out of it by forcing myself to have a thought, feeling or action that dilated me. And I always turned to gratitude.
I remember the first time I tried it, again, I was homeless on the street corner, and I saw this light coming through the palm tree and it was beautiful. I allowed myself just to see the poetry of it. It was gorgeous. And it created this lacy shadow dress almost on me, on the shadow, it cast on me and I was grateful for it. I was grateful for the light. I was grateful I was in San Diego, it was warm. I wasn't fighting the cold. There's a lot for me to be grateful for.
What we've learned now is the science behind that. When we allow ourselves to experience something that dilates us, our vascular system literally dilates, blood pressure drops, the blood flow in our brain redirects. It goes back into our frontal lobes where joy and processing and logic are experienced and it stops going into our amygdala where there's fight or flight and then our biochemical response changes. We start to have, instead of the excitatory anxious biochemicals, we get the calmative serotonin and those types of biochemicals flooding our system. So it's a really simple hack. It has a lot of science behind it that's very profound.
So I wrote the song about when I'm anxious, just saying, nobody can take my happiness unless I give it to them. No politician, no crisis, nobody, unless I give that up. I can always be grateful. So I don't have to, it can always be whatever, sunshine in your heart. So that's what I wrote the song about. And it wasn't a song I was going to lead with. It's slow and certainly not a song you think of like, this should be the first single off my album, but it's what I felt like was the most significant thing I could help and how I could help right now with what's going on.
You also have a documentary coming out called MINDFULNESS MOVEMENT. Anything you would like to share about that now?
Yeah, it's such a perfect time. We definitely had to change our release strategy because we were just about to go to a theater release when the pandemic hit but the topic couldn't be more perfect. I helped executive produce this with Deepak Chopra. The more people can learn about mindfulness, the more we can allow people to have the tools to take charge of their own happiness, to not be dependent on anybody else, that realize we have this, you've got this. Obviously, any other resources we can have. If we have access to therapists, that's great, but we still have to live with ourselves in that moment. We have to fall asleep, or when we get anxious with our kids and all of those things. So I'm very excited about the information that's in this documentary, and especially right now, I think it's an important message.
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