The Austin Chronicle


By Christopher Gray, July 9, 2004, Music

Don't Do It

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the past couple of months around the local music scene have sucked. This should be the time of year for three-hour sunsets and regular visits to Hamilton Pool, not picking out proper memorial-service attire. As different as their individual lives were, together the sudden losses of Tracey Crossett, Wade Longenberger, and Mike Blake have left a gaping hole in Austin's soul – all the more so because each, in some fashion, died by his or her own hand.

As their slack-jawed friends and loved ones struggle to make sense out of their untimely departures, one especially salient question has surfaced more than once: Where is the SIMS Foundation? Begun in the wake of Pariah bassist Sims Ellison's tragic 1995 suicide, SIMS (Services Invested in Musicians' Support) ostensibly exists for this very purpose: offering at-risk musicians and others in the scene tangible, clinical help – at a greatly reduced cost. So what happened?

The short answer is nothing. SIMS is very much still around. As a matter of fact, after a round of office-swapping at the foundation's Lake Austin Boulevard headquarters last week, it obtained some much-needed extra room. And people use it, too: At the Longbranch Inn Monday night, one unnamed but well-known local musician said SIMS helped him negotiate a delicate situation with a now-former bandmate: "I used it when I wanted to tear [his] head off. ... Normally, I'm a peaceful person." Several friends have also sought help and were quite satisfied with the results, he added.

"I think we're very well-known within the [musicians'] community," says SIMS Executive Director Mary-Louise Lopez, adding that most referrals come from word-of-mouth. "Outside of that, we may not have our name out there as much as we should."

SIMS's own figures back up their assertions. Lopez, who came aboard last October, estimates the foundation typically sees between 75 and 85 clients a month, with up to 25 cold calls on top of that. Clinical Coordinator Molly Whitley says even in serious cases, SIMS is almost always able to arrange for an appointment with someone in its network of approximately 50 therapists and other mental-health specialists within a day or two.

"Most of our calls are people who are having difficulties, but it's not an immediate crisis," Whitley divulges. "I would say one or two, maybe three a month are crisis situations."

That's the easy part. Telling people who ask for help where to get it is precisely why SIMS exists. But if someone is hurting and won't ask for help, there's not much they can do. Unless, someone close to that person can convince him to pick up the phone. It's not exactly an easy subject to bring up, but in these situations, trying is often all anyone can really do.

"One of the big misconceptions a lot of people have is that you shouldn't ask the person if they're feeling suicidal," Whitley says. "People are afraid to ask. They think, 'If I ask, then it's going to put the thought in their head and it's going to trigger them to want to hurt themselves.' It's just not true. If the person is having suicidal thoughts, it's usually a big relief to have somebody ask."

Familiar ailments among SIMS's clientele include anxiety, stress, depression, and bipolar disorder, but as might be expected, Whitley says a high percentage of their cases can be directly traced to misuse or abuse of controlled substances – and not even cocaine or high-profile narcotics like heroin. Alcohol can be just as detrimental, even more so because for an overwhelming number of musicians and nonmusicians alike, a night in the clubs means booze, and lots of it.

"There's alcohol and drugs and you're up late; all that stuff lends itself to getting into substance use to a point that's not healthy," Whitley says. Even when it's obvious someone has a problem – and in many more cases, it's not – the permissive environment makes confrontation harder.

"You can't really tell them, 'Just Say No,'" says Lopez. "That kind of stuff is not going to be what works here."

To find out what does work, SIMS has lately been seeking input from both musicians and clinicians – one reason, besides the inevitable organizational shuffling common to nonprofit agencies, its profile has been rather low of late. The foundation already works closely with the Austin Recovery Center and the Recording Academy's MusicCares program, which offers aid to any music person in financial crisis. Lopez would also like to forge stronger ties with the Musicians' Assistance Program, a national program that aids musicians struggling with substance-abuse problems.

Ultimately, though, SIMS and other like-minded organizations can only do so much. The rest is up to us. Keeping mum while a friend strays down that dark path (see sidebar for some telltale signs) isn't quite the same as cocking the gun for him, but it carries similar risks.

The Austin Lounge Lizards, Miss Lavelle White, Loose Diamonds, Kings of the Motel 6, and many more play a benefit for SIMS Sunday, July 18, 3-10pm at Threadgill's World Headquarters. $10 suggested donation.

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