Feeling like I can be anything I wanna be, but I know I’ll always be my greatest enemy… I’m trying to break out of this feeling like I’m in a casket / I can’t get past it, all of this madness… I don’t wanna feel this come down — “Greatest Enemy,” The Strumbellas

When you’re living in hell, you’ll try anything that helps you even if it hurts /
I welcome the pain / Won’t give up the chase / I’ll find my way back to myself / The only way out is through, the only thing I can do is find my way back to myself
— “Back To Myself,” Serena Ryder

The coronavirus pandemic hit everyone in the music industry hard. Some experienced situational depression or bouts of anxiety, sadness or lethargy. Others, already clinically diagnosed, had their symptoms compounded by the uncertainly of a global health crisis.

The Unison Benevolent Fund, Canada’s emergency financial and counselling charity for the music industry, went into overdrive from the moment COVID-19 shut down the live music sector in March of 2020 – to ensure that there was enough funds in the coffers to support the thousands of people struggling with the immediate loss of their livelihood.

“In 2020, there was a massive increase in counselling services and calls into Morneau Shepell. It was more than double what we’d seen in previous years,” says Unison’s executive director Amanda Power, speaking about the outsourced HR well-being provider, now called LifeWorks. “With that said, looking at the stats for 2021, counselling services have actually started to decrease. We’re now at the point where we’re trending to where we were prior to the pandemic. I think people are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Over the summer, Unison also introduced Togetherall, a free, online, peer-to-peer mental health community that – like all Unison’s services – is anonymous. “Since we launched [in mid-June], we’ve noticed a good number of people using the program,” says Power.

Artist development funding body FACTOR (the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records) also has a section on its website dedicated to mental health resources, linking to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Arts’ Health Alliance, Over The Bridge, and Unison. And behemoth Bell Media – while often under fire for its potentially “triggering” one-day Bell Let’s Talk campaign – distributes funds year-round to mental health organizations and causes, out of its commitment  to contribute $155 million by 2025.

But how has the pandemic affected musicians who have already been clinically diagnosed with a mental health disorder? Serena Ryder and The Strumbellas’ frontman Simon Ward have both bravely gone public with their struggles, and written about it in song, so SOCAN reached out to learn how they coped.

The Strumbellas had postponed tour dates in early 2020 – just before the global pandemic brought life as we knew it to a screeching halt anyway – but it wasn’t until February of 2021, and the release of the topical “Greatest Enemy,” that the band put out a press release revealing the reason: “[Simon] Ward realized that the depression he had been dealing with for the past 15 years was no longer something he could deal with on his own. Ward was hospitalized and placed under doctor supervision.”

“I took a hiatus from life in general, so being in COVID made it harder, but I became a hermit anyway,” Ward tells SOCAN.  “I was in such rough shape that I didn’t feel COVID as hard as others. I was sitting at home by myself for the most part anyway, so I wasn’t being social. I think my path would’ve been pretty similar.

“My strategies getting through COVID while in a depression were, I would go for walks, and I spent a lot of time with the kids and my wife. We played board games, always ate supper together, and I was as social as I can be. I meditated a lot. I did a lot of therapy.”

The one plus is Ward didn’t feel the guilt he normally would have for cancelling a tour. “Because of COVID, we couldn’t have toured anyways. so that was a big stress relief for me,” he says, adding, “I’m doing better, but I gotta be straight with you: I’m still in it.  It’s now been a year and, oh God, a year and eight months, and I’m still going through a depression. it’s the longest stretch I’ve ever had to go through. I’m better in some ways, and in some ways I’m the same.”

Ryder, on the other hand, is feeling brilliant, and for years now has used her past struggles to help others on their journey to mental wellness.

In 2015, she became a spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk. In a 20-minute segment on CTV’s W5 in 2017, Ryder opened up further about a tour cancellation in 2010 which started with “a super tight chest,” fatigue, and anxiety, and developed into a debilitating six months during which she was bed-ridden. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and deep depression. She also became a public speaker, supporting mental wellness, and won the 2018 Margaret Trudeau Mental Health Advocacy Award.

In March of 2021, Ryder released an album, The Art of Falling Apart, chronicling her struggles and recovery, song by song. Today she’s feels like a whole new person, since taking major steps towards her own wellness.  She was already prepared for life’s uncertainties when she cancelled a tour more than a decade ago, or had to delay album-tour-album cycles, so COVID didn’t throw her for a loop.

“For the last three years, I haven’t suffered from any really big ups or downs,” she tells SOCAN. “A lot of that came from how I chose to not drink alcohol anymore. It really changed my life; actually, all of the symptoms that I used to experience when it came to mental wellness really just fell off. It’s been pretty amazing.”

Stressing that everyone is different, Ryder explains that her own wellness regimen consists of yoga and breath work, specifically Kundalini yoga and its “breath of fire” exercises, “different things to just move my body around.” She says dancing for three minutes also helps.

“That was the biggest thing for me with mental wellness during the pandemic; I knew it was going to be a really difficult time for a lot of people,” says Ryder.  “And for people who haven’t experienced any mental health issues, they were starting to experience them, because there’s so much that was unsure. Many people started experiencing anxiety that had never had it before, panic attacks, or depression.”

Along with her “womanager” Sandy Pandya, Ryder started a record label, ArtHaus, and a four-week online wellness program called The Art of Wellness. It started in October of 2020, and they’re nearing their 20th edition. Each 90-minute Zoom group session is moderated by a different counselor — ranging from therapists to doctors —and participants can choose whether or not to be on camera, and are free to ask questions.  She calls it a safe space to heal.

“It’s based on finding your own personal toolkit,” Ryder explains. “Everybody knows what they need best. It’s just that there are people on the other side of it to help facilitate what you know you already need.” They also offer specialized sessions for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, as well as LGBTQ2S+ people.

“This time for me has been great because of all of the stuff that I’ve been through,” she says. “When it comes to mental wellness, I was able to be of service. That’s really been such a nourishing part of this lockdown for me, to be someone that can be there, and that knows what it’s like.”