New Jersey’s Joe Penola is in many ways living out the super hero comics that as a child his father once read to him nightly. Penola is the founder and president of The You Rock Foundation, a nonprofit created in 2013 that spreads awareness about mental health using interviews with musicians a catalyst for conversation.
“These people are modern day superheroes,” Penola says of the rock stars. “To have them step off the pedestal that we put them on, and get really raw and intimate in these interviews is really empowering. It begs you to do the same…if they are able to talk about this maybe I can…if they can get better, maybe I can.”
And like many graphic novels or comic books, the story can take a turn for the worst. Even heroes have flaws. At 16, Penola lost his father to a car accident. He twice attempted suicide.
“I do suffer from depression,” Penola said. “The reason I created The You Rock Foundation, was in addition to exercising, eating more nutritious, I attended a Landmark Worldwide seminar. The entire four-month program was built around what they called a community project. The very first day you’re there you literally draw a map of all the communities in your life.”
“Once that’s all drawn out, you look at what community do you want to have a positive influence? Easy answers for me – people who suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental illness, especially those who are suffering so badly they are considering ending their life.”
One such community that Penola knew he could also connect with was the music community. His day job as artist relations for Musical Distributors Group meant he came across rock stars daily. And, he figured they might have a story to share. The gamble paid off.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US and each year 44,965 Americans die by suicide (2016). It’s striking then, to see video testimonials from platinum selling artists sharing their own struggles. One such honest, vulnerable video interview on The You Rock Foundation’s site is from legendary KORN front man, Jonathan Davis:
“I think music is one of the most powerful things in the entire world. It has the power to heal people. It has the power to bring people together no matter what. I think people that suffer from depression need to find an outlet to express themselves and get those bad things out of their head, I mean, it helped me a lot, immensely.”
Penola calls these musicians and artists “brave” for sharing their stories, but recognizes that not everyone is in a position to share their thoughts. He uses his own experiences, as a 16-year-old to gauge what someone like him might need. He says the last thing he wanted to do was attend group therapy.
“We’re working on a campaign / curriculum called ‘let lyrics speak,’” Penola said. “If you’re listening to this debilitating voice, it takes so much for you to get out of bed and get out of your house, you think they’re going to want to hang out with other people in that intimate of a setting? No f'n way. Pardon my French. Say you approach those people…and ask them if they want to get together and talk about your favorite songs and why they resonate with you? You bet your ass I would have gone.”
“Music is the key that unlocks the gate that we’ve been bolting and chaining up our entire lives. It’s a beautiful sonic invitation to share.”
Besides the video testimonials, The You Rock Foundation has engaged its social media community members with May’s Mohawk Challenge. Participants are styling their hair in actual Mohawks, while others might be braiding their hair in fun, creative ways. Penola calls anxiety and depression like having a fun house mirrors in your brain.
“We want to create an army of people to fight mental health,” Penola said.
Recently Penola joined millions of moviegoers to see Marvel’s Infinity War. His voice sounds reflective and proud as he stops. You can tell he’s thinking of his dad and his voice makes a slight crack.
“Seeing those super heroes on screen felt like a miracle to me,” he said. “We really all have that super power. If you’re open to being honest and being vulnerable and show people it’s okay to feel this way. It’s okay to share – you are going to touch, move and inspire people more than you can ever imagine.
For more information and how you can help: http://yourockfoundation.org