Ray of Hope – Sunny State’s Chris Reed Tackles Pandemic Mental Health Struggles

Chris Reed 11 V2
Chris Reed recounts his pandemic mental health challenges in a recent MABH COVID-19 Diaries Series article. Courtesy photo

Sunny State’s Chris Reed wants to demolish his pandemic wall.

The San Jose, California reggae fusion frontman and multi-instrumentalist slowly destroys each emotional barrier that arose unexpectedly over the past year. Reed successfully smashes those internal blockades by sharing his mental health struggles with family, friends and fans.

In April, Reed penned an intimate piece for Stanford University’s The Millennium Alliance for Humanity & The Biosphere (MAHB)’s COVID-19 Diaries Series called “My Life As An Artist Suddenly Didn’t Seem Relevant.” The article deeply explores the lingering fear and frustration Reed and his family encountered over the past year as personal and professional challenges mounted.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, The Stratton Setlist chatted with Reed about his experience and how he tackled his troubles. His story serves as a constant reminder for artists, musicians and creatives to openly discuss their mental health struggles with others. Here’s how Reed overcame the stigma and got real about his situation:

How did you come to write this piece for MAHB?

MAHB is a grassroots effort that provides a central meeting place for individuals and groups concerned about loss of biodiversity, climate change, overpopulation and other issues.

In late summer, Aminah Hughes mentioned she was looking for artists to quote about the mental and emotional struggles during the pandemic for a piece she was writing for Around the Sound. Once that article was shared, Michele Guieu, MAHB arts community coordinator, asked if I’d be interested in writing something for their COVID-19 Diaries Series.

I considered this to be a great honor and was humbled and a bit intimidated to write anything for such a prestigious organization. Naturally, I accepted and started milling over what exactly to write. I find MAHB’s mission to align with my wish for the world to be more collaborative and connective.

What was it like to revisit the struggles you and your family faced over the past year?

I wondered what I should write about for weeks. I sat down multiple times with no ideas. To be honest, I was in a bit of a fog from October/November until recently. When my deadline was a few days away, I went back to the beginning of the pandemic and relived all the emotions I had tried to suppress.

The trauma we were all living through right now is heavy, and I didn’t even know what I was going to write or say. As the memories poured out of me and after an hour after writing, I was left with nine pages, far more than I needed for the piece.

I spent the next couple days editing and making sure I was being as honest as possible. It was hard to be this open and vulnerable. Even though I do write songs from an honest place, this was touching on topics I rarely speak about. The more I worked on the piece, the more my fears of sharing started fizzling away. I decided sharing my struggle could possibly help someone else not feel so alone.

What new insights did you gain from writing about your experience?

We’ve all lost a lot and are still losing a lot. This is a hard time; it’s not just me. But I know it’s hard to openly discuss these things. I mean, how do you bring these types of things up without sounding ungrateful? And I know I have so much to be grateful for.

Once the piece was completed, I knew it was time to push forward. By reading my words, I knew it would not be easy, and I was justified in my feelings, but I could no longer let it control me. I wanted to get a hold of the spiral of emotions I was experiencing daily. I didn’t want to avoid looking at myself in the mirror anymore.

I felt like a car that had been parked too long, and I forced myself to do things that once brought me joy. The parts of my soul that lay dormant were revived, and they restarted my happiness.

My wife Maggie also has done a great job of sinking her teeth into her artistic endeavors, which helped her stay optimistic as well as for the sake of our children. It’s a great way for her heart and soul to stay full. More recently, Maggie and I wanted to help end the pandemic in a way. We developed a clothing line called VAXHOLE, which represents someone who has been vaccinated and brags about it.

We also started a clothing company called It’s a Vibe and designed shirts, hats, beanies, flip-flops and masks. We donated 100 percent of the proceeds to UNICEF to help with their efforts to vaccinate over 2 billion people in more than 180 countries.

How does your article serve as a wake-up call for people to share their mental health struggles?

No matter how dark or bleak your days may be, this article and others like it are a reminder that we are not alone in our struggles. Even though my wife was by my side through all of this, I felt very alone sometimes and so did she. Not because we weren’t there for each other, but because we each had our own thoughts and feelings.

Even if we share them, we are the ones experiencing them. We are the ones they plague in the darkness at night as we try to will ourselves to sleep. Your demons keep you up at night, and they are your burden to bear. But you don’t have to do it alone. For me, sharing these demons and writing this piece helped. Calling friends and family to catch up and be real helped.

I hope this article will encourage others to reach out and reconnect with friends and family. Start the search for a therapist, and start reading books. Do what once brought you joy. But most of all, be kind to yourself and those around you. What you are feeling is valid, but it does not need to define you. You can take ownership over these feelings and conquer them.

How did music help you and your family stay positive throughout the pandemic?

Singing has long been a therapeutic tool for me. I went through almost a two-year period where I barely touched an instrument or sang. During that time, I used my artistic energy to focus on writing a book series. While I felt very engaged and energized, there was a side of myself that wasn’t being accessed, and I wasn’t as happy as I had been.

Once I had started playing and singing again, I was reminded that there’s no better release for me. I let the world go, and my soul gets a chance to stretch its wings and scream out. Singing through the pandemic has been a great tool for me to release all that gets pent up inside. This simple act brings more balance to my life, and it makes me a better father and husband.

Photo by Arabella Espinoza
Chris Reed plans to release new music with Sunny State later this year. Photo – Arabella Espinoza

How do your Sunny State tracks, “Music Train” and “Human,” provide respite for listeners?

Music Train” is an invitation to “ride with us tonight,” or on any night. Join us on this journey of life with some feel-good vibes. “They say they built the tracks in Italy, before there was a train to make the journey.”

We may not be the train that feels ready for the journey, but we need to believe in ourselves and lay those tracks down, one step at a time. Eventually, the train will be ready. Until then, ride along with us, and let’s bring ourselves up to a good vibration. We need to “conquer one fear every day of life.”

Human” had to be released, and we had to create the music video that we did. Whether we wanted to admit it, we were all confused and terrified when the lockdown began. There was political turmoil, a growing divide in our nation and daily misinformation about the pandemic.

We all began to question the lives we had led, and “Human” reminds us that it’s OK to be flawed. It’s OK to question your worthiness. But most importantly, it’s crucial to find our common ground and use it to build meaningful, loving and supportive relationships.

How does your latest Sunny State track, “Unite & Be,” serve as a cathartic anthem for you and your family as well as listeners?

Unite & Be” preaches what we need to focus on – positive change. There are so many injustices in our country and the world that we must use them as motivation to press forward and actively fight for change. We need equality, and this song is how I move forward for my two girls and the world they deserve.

I hope listeners can feel empowered to press forward with confidence in this same pursuit for the good of themselves, their families and their community. Once the pandemic is over and we reemerge, I hope we can “unite and be stronger” together.

Now that you and your wife are vaccinated, how are you safely getting back to “normal life?”

We’re masking up and getting out more. The kids are having playdates in the park, and my oldest daughter Violet is back at school for three hours a day, four days a week. Maggie and I are seeing other vaccinated friends and going out for date nights.

I’ve started planning a summer program for work and local trips to help us get more dynamic experiences in our lives. I played a live show that was broadcast online and started planning in-person concerts for the summer.

I also sought out a traditional therapist and hypnotherapist to help me process all I’m going through and gather tools to handle life with a little more perspective.

What advice do you have for others who are struggling these days?

Get vaccinated to protect yourself, your family and your community. Be sure to mask up and get out. I also recommend seeking help – that means calling and reconnecting with family and friends who can help support you emotionally. It doesn’t mean to dump everything on them, but just connect with them.

You may have a lot more in common these days than you did before. Don’t worry about judgment, just focus on forging better relationships with those you choose. I find connection with those I love to be the most valuable tool for me to gain perspective and appreciation for life.

I also recommend reaching out to your healthcare provider so they can connect you to a therapist. If you have a family member or friend in therapy, then they may have someone they can refer to you to as well. There are services like Two Chairs, Octave and Foresight Mental Health, and you can check Psychology Today. You can narrow your search by gender, type of therapy, price and other factors.

What plans do you have for writing, recording and releasing new material later this year?

I’ve been writing and practicing new songs, and Sunny State has been practicing in person while being masked up. We’re prepping to the hit studio to record a three-to-five song EP and releasing a couple of singles in the coming months. I’ve been talking to venues about booking summer dates and have a private acoustic pop-up show next week.

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