It’s the morning after news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide shocked fans across the world. Many responding with, “How could somebody so funny be so sad?”
It just so happens that this is the same morning I had a phone interview scheduled with Robb Nash, someone who knows the effects of depression all too well. He’s been getting media requests all morning in response to Robin’s shocking death.
“To be honest with you, Robin Williams is the perfect example of what we teach,” Nash says. “[People who die by suicide] are often very gifted people. When I talk with a mom or a dad who lost a son or daughter – and that’s what I deal with every day – they don’t talk about their kid as this “wrecked” person they didn’t understand. They usually talk about how gifted they were, how emotional and how loving.”
Nash and his band created a youth presentation that combines rock music and storytelling to talk about often difficult issues such as suicide, addiction and bullying. The goal of each presentation is to share hope and inspiration to live lives of purpose.
Nash uses his own story and musical talent to connect with teens. Those who have heard Nash’s story know he was inspired to create the presentation after recovering from a near fatal car accident, where he at one point was pronounced dead. But it wasn’t such an easy story.
Over the past couple of years, Nash has spoken to 60,000 students in schools. He’s had over 200 youth hand in their suicide notes over in his last tour that aligns with the school year. Other have given Nash items they’ve used for self-harm, such as razor blades. And another 500,000 young people have engaged with videos and other social media online.
I spoke with Nash over the phone to talk about his inspiration for working with youth in the first place and what it is about his message and approach that is giving struggling youth hope.
AK: You speak publicly about how being in a major car accident radically changed your life, and was the reason you decided to play music to help youth rather than focus on a music career. Why did you decided to gear your efforts towards youth in the first place?
RN: When I had my accident, I was 17 years old. I’m 6”5, I was an athletic guy, and now suddenly I woke from a coma and found out I had died in a car accident. My parents were called to see my body. I went from a 17 year old athlete to a 17 year old being bathed by his mom. And to be honest with you, I didn’t wake up wanting to change the world. I woke up very angry, very bitter, doing the whole, ‘Why me?’ thing.
It was in those years that were the toughest. Once I found the strength, and I realized this, people would say to me, “Don’t worry, Robb, the pain will go away. You’ll get over this.” And then pain didn’t go away and I didn’t get over it, and I was in a very dark place. I didn’t want to be alive many times. And I didn’t tell anyone.
When I found the strength, I realized, “Pain doesn’t always go away, but neither does the strength.” And that’s one of the things we teach: If you wake in the morning and you’re looking for pain, you’ll find it. If you wake up in the morning and you’re looking for strength, you’ll find that too. Your life is going to be full of painful days; it’s not going away. But you can take your stories and you can help others with it.
I had thought to myself, ‘How many other young people are going through a tragedy and people are saying the wrong things for them? They’re in this dark place waiting for the pain to go away and it doesn’t. They think there is something wrong with them. That’s why I was like, ‘I want to talk to other youth!’
AK: Did you have your own struggles as a teenager before your accident?
RN: No, I had not really dealt with that type of stuff – I was shallow. Life meant very little to me. And now looking back I can see how vulnerable that makes you. And it took this tragedy, but I don’t think it has to.
A lot of people say you need to hit rock bottom in your life so that they can turn their life around. I completely disagree. If someone can convince me that everyone has to experience tragedy before they change their life, then I will stop this tour.
Instead, we tell the stories of other people’s experiences, and through that, that’s how we see breakthroughs: ‘Here’s my suicide note, here’s my razor blades I use to self-harm. Here’s my bottle of drugs, take this from me, I don’t need it anymore.
I truly believe that we can learn from the stories around us. People say everything happens for a reason – I don’t believe that as well. Everyone said that to me with good intentions, but that made me sit back and go, ‘Okay, what’s the reason that this happened to me? Why me?’
We say, ‘Things don’t happen for a reason, but they happen with potential. Like, my accident happened with the potential to leave me bitter and angry for the rest of my life… or there was potential I could turn my story around, try to share it with others and hopefully help them so they don’t have to reach death like I did before they start to live.
There’s no one answer though. Some people need to take the focus off their selves through helping someone else… Some people think of suicide because they’ve been picked on so badly. Some people drink and black out or they get too high out and then don’t even remember the fact that they attempted suicide – and that’s where they need to make a decision around drugs and alcohol.
AK: You have kids handing over their suicide notes and items for self-harm. They talk to you about things that they may not normally talk to adults about. Why do you think that is?
RN: We go to a school and I tell my story – I start every show with my story – and that’s not easy. But I do that because the biggest thing is we have to be willing to talk about it. I think adults, parents, can make a big mistake of not saying their kids, ‘Yeah, I know what it’s like to be weak. I know what it’s like to be vulnerable.’ We just say, ‘Oh, don’t worry. You’ll get over this.’
The reason it works is because I share my story. I know what it’s like to be weak, I know what it’s like to be vulnerable. I know what it’s like to hurt. And people go, ‘Wow, somebody else out there is like me.’ And that’s why, when it comes to mental health and everything, we are just trying to get people to talk about it.
AK: So as adults and parents, how do you think we should approach these issues so youth are open to the conversation?
RN: Well, be willing to talk. Be willing to listen. Be willing to be vulnerable. But understand something too: I’ve met with some parents that have done everything right, and something bad still does happen sometimes. And you need to realize that at the end of the day, you can’t make someone’s decisions for them. At the end of the day, open the door: Make sure the person knows that you care, that you’re willing to talk, but you can never force conversation. You can never force someone to open up or to ask for help. But you can at least let them know that you’re there and make sure you mean it. Kids can tell if you don’t.
To another point, if you open up the newspapers or turn on the TV, you see stories about mental health. It’s everywhere. It’s such a high of a priority right now. And then you get to schools, and some schools have 1,000 kids, and there’s only one counsellor available for four schools in the division. I don’t know why it is not a higher priority. It should be one of the most respected, coveted positions in our culture. The future of our country is sitting with our youth.
AK: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth, age 15 – 29. This is a serious health epidemic. Do you have any thoughts around why suicide has become such a common-day solution for our young people?
RN: I don’t think these young people see the finality of their decision. I am asked all the time, ‘What’s your opinion on the Amanda Todd story?’ Man, is it tragic – it really is. But I keep saying, especially to the media, ‘Please balance your stories.’ Tell the stories of those who have ripped up their suicide notes. Tell the stories of people who have found the strength. These kids, they learn from each other. We can be in Moncton, New Brunswick on week, and we could be on Vancouver Island the next week, and the issues are so consistent. And we deal with all those issues in our show – from addictions, self-harm, suicide – youth are learning from each other… Let’s tell the stories that show you can find the strength. It says to struggling youth, ‘There are people who have been where you are and they have made it.’
The Robb Nash is currently on their fifth school tour. Since the majority of the audiences he presents to are schools or other establishments without a budget, the project operates completely by donation. For more information on The Robb Nash Project, please visit robbnash.com.