Choir to address mental health, battle stigma

SVSU’s first mental health themed concert choir is stirring conversation around campus. Director Kevin Simons said he hoped the concert would do just that – get students and faculty talking about mental illness.

“Mental illness and suicide prevention have been major concerns among our student population not just here, but nationwide,” he said. “In doing a lot of thinking about the way I program material, I felt it was important to really fulfill the mission of the arts – that is, to bring attention to important topics that our students and community are facing.”

This is the first time the concert choir will perform a mental health themed concert, according to Simons.

“It’s not a holiday concert,” he said. “Not that holiday concerts are bad, but I think it’s time that in the arts we address some of the issues going on around us. Otherwise, we aren’t fulfilling our role.”

Concert choir, a non-audition choir consisting of about 40 members, will perform pieces themed around mental illness. Selections include a song from “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Please Stay,” the latter of which was the inspiration for the theme.

After hearing the piece at a conference a few years ago, Simons decided to make it in the centerpiece of the concert.

“The text is drawn from tweets of suicide survivors,” he said. “The whole piece was commissioned by 20 different universities and high schools.”

Cardinal Singers, an audition-only choir, will perform pieces composed by artists who have mental illnesses.

“We have pieces that are being done by folks who were mentally ill because I felt it was important that we show music and poetry that’s genius by people who struggled with mental illness themselves,” Simons said.

He said several choir students expressed concerns that the songs were triggering, and he had anticipated those concerns.

“I knew this was going to happen because the material is difficult,” he said. “I talked to the Counseling Center and asked their staff to speak to the choirs about the services they provide, which they did. I’ve also made myself available outside office hours for students to be able to talk. I’ve talked with the choirs and with students individually.”

Simons said the fact that students expressed concerns proves how important it is for the concert choir to perform these selections.

“The concerns are warranted, and I think that’s why it’s important we’re doing this – so we can have a conversation about it,” he said. “That’s what’s been going on. I’m really happy about that, in a way. I think it has gotten folks to reach out when they’ve needed help, and I think that will continue. That’s part of the goal – that we remove part of the stigma about talking about mental health and suicide. That’s a big part of the problem.”

Simons said he anticipates the audience will have similar concerns. The concert program will address the theme, and he will also discuss it before the choir sings.

“Taking a page from my theatre colleagues who regularly address very difficult content in the context they use, I felt it was important that, in choral music, we begin to talk about the same things and begin to enter that conversation,” Simons said.

Adam Coggins, a music performance senior, agreed that the theme was important to address.

“Even though we’re more progressive than we used to be, a lot of modern practice still doesn’t see it as a real thing, and a lot of people still don’t treat it as seriously as it is,” the tenor and bass section leader said.

Like Simons, Coggins was not surprised that many of his peers were concerned with the theme.

“The text, if taken at face value, sounds like guilt-tripping,” he said. “That’s not how I feel about it. I know everyone is different, and everyone is going to read into it differently.”

Having struggled with his own mental health, Coggins said the concert was important because it will let audience members who may be suffering realize they are not alone.

“I have dealt with mental health problems since I was 16,” he said. “I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder called body dysmorphia disorder. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety since I was 16.”

Coggins said the concert choir is trying to create discussions about mental health and why it is important, including those students who are uncomfortable with the pieces.

“The last thing we want is people feeling guilty about how they feel,” he said. “That’s not what I want, and I think that’s not what the rest of the choir wants, either. We want people to leave feeling like they can talk to others.”

Coggins said he hopes the concert helps audience members and performers know it is OK to struggle with mental illness and that there are resources available to seek help.

“If you have these feelings, that’s OK,” he said. “If you are depressed, anxious or having suicidal thoughts, you’re not less of a person because of that, and you deserve to be helped.”

The concert choir will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall.

“I hope people will come and join the conversation,” Simons said. “It’s difficult, but it becomes less difficult when people talk.”

Kaitlyn Farley

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