‘The King and I: How music saved my life’

Fighting mental illness one instrument at a time


By Aine D

Legendary musician Elvis Presley has inspired South Australian musician and mental health advocate Scott Jackson. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trigger warning: This article discusses mental illness and suicide

South Australian musician and mental health advocate Scott Jackson was just six when he first came across his hero.

“I saw Mr Elvis Presley on the TV and I was just hooked from then,” Jackson said.

“His singing, the way he moved, his playing with the guitar as well, everything about him.

“I love everything about that man… from his music, to movies, to him in general – who he was as a person.

“He inspired me in so many ways.”

As he approached his eighth birthday, Jackson began learning to play the drums outside of school.

“Before that, I was tapping on everything that I saw,” he said, with a chuckle.

Drums would be the musical instrument that kick-started Jackson’s passion for music.

“I got my first kit when I was 10 for my birthday,” he said.

“I don’t have it anymore, but it was a basic kit, smaller than a usual one you’d see up on stage.

“It was like a student kit; everything was a little bit smaller.”

His passion for music rapidly.

“Everything was music; I wanted to do instruments, I wanted to learn stuff… I wanted to do it.”

Eventually, Jackson also picked up the trumpet and would march in the Hahndorf Youth Band; his parents were in the Hahndorf Town Brass Band.

“I played trumpet, and I would also help them out with drumming – the youth band and the Hahndorf Town Band.”

From the surface, Jackson’s life encompassed love and positivity. But every day he fought an internal battle: depression, a disease affecting one in five Australian men, which has also been reported in one in six per cent of Australian women according to Beyond Blue. Jackson credits music for saving his life.

“Music is very important for mental health,” he said. “I always turn to music if I’m feeling really down about anything that may have triggered my depression.”

Flinders University-based Endeavour Research Fellow, Creative Arts lecturer and music psychologist, Dr Marco Susino, said, “we listen to music to deal particularly with emotions”.

He acknowledged music as a therapeutic process, however disagreed with the assumption that music constantly makes us feel better.

“When we listen to music… [we experience] adaptive and maladaptive functions, so listening to music can make us for example, feel sad, but the aspect of rumination of sad emotions is beneficial for us,” Dr Susino said.

“Say for example, we’re listening to a piece of music and we start having this memory of something that happened to us – which is actually not something pleasant, say it was a funeral… when we listen to music, this emotion comes out, the emotional sadness for example of the grief can come up.

“Listening to music and going through the grief can be like a therapeutic process.”

Mental health organisation ReachOut suggests using music to improve mental wellbeing. ReachOut said music helps elevate your mood, increases your level of motivation, improves relaxation, and heightens your brain’s efficiency to process things. This can be achieved by listening to music as well as creating it.

“We listen to music for many different reasons; for example, to raise our heart up when we are at the gym, or to feel very calm when we are in a meditation room,” Dr Susino said.

“Music is one aspect that we can find cross-culturally, and it seems to be one of the artforms that is possibly universally found, so regardless of which culture you come from, there’s this aspect that music can be understood and communicated through all different cultures.”

Something important to note, it is the familiarity with the music rather than the genre which causes an emotion and physical reaction in the body, according to Dr Susino.

English and Creative Writing/History and Cultural Studies Honours student, Marissa Lockhart, has found international music from Korea, Japan and Indonesia particularly helpful for regulating her mood.

“Japanese music had been with me since I started watching Japanese animation – anime – as the music used is mainly ballad or rock which piqued my interest,” she said.

“Indonesian is an easy listen because I am half-Indonesian, but the music isn’t the taste I normally listen to.”

Korean music is her favourite.

“It is hard to define the state of the mind after being in K-Pop for over eight or nine years; the genre diversity allowed me to create several playlists that are determined by my moods: Uni studies, uplifting, gym, breakup/sad depresso.”

For Lockhart, her emotional attachment to these music genres stemmed from her own understanding and translation of the lyrics.

“Lately with COVID, just listening to 2019 [music] allowed me to … forget about the restrictions.

“It is hard as I am alone from family but they know I am okay because I am safe but also practice a sense of presence thanks to music.”

“In terms of mental health and the physical changes, there are numerous studies which have been conducted where listening to music can create aspects of serotonin being released in the brain so you’re feeling much better; it’s this chemical in the brain which makes you feel better and more positive,” Dr Susino explained.

“It’s just pure joy and happiness,” Jackson said.

“It doesn’t matter what I’m doing.

“When I’m listening, writing, playing, like I was in a band a while back, and I was the drummer, every time we formed, it would just, in that moment on the drums, just playing, listening, enjoying it, it’s just an instant rush of happiness,” he said.

“Seven months ago, I got to my lowest point; I was done with everything… I did actually attempt suicide,” he said.

When asked how depression feels, Jackson’s response was immediate and absolute: “I don’t wish it on anyone”.

“It’s one of the worst feelings you can go through; the worst thing you can go through,” he said.

“You just feel as though there is no hope for the future.

“You don’t find anything enjoyable that you usually would, even if it’s simply watching a movie.

“You become socially distant, which I’ve done.

“I didn’t talk to anyone basically for a long time, not even to my parents about how I was feeling, and I live with them still.

“I was just hiding my emotions for a long time.”

ReachOut advises depression and other mental illnesses can be triggered by a multitude of factors which can be biological, or as a result of a traumatic life event. The organisation also affirms that depression physically affects the body as well as one’s mood. This is quite often misunderstood by people who have not experienced depression.

This was a pivotal moment in Jackson’s life. “I realised I needed serious help,” he said.

Subsequently, he sought professional help.

“It’s going really good,” he said.

“It taught me they [mental health professionals] wanted to understand, and they don’t judge, and they can offer advice in some sort of way.”

Jackson believes judgement from others is the primary reason people refuse to seek help.

“I didn’t open up for a long time,” he said.

“I couldn’t say what I was truly thinking because I thought, ‘I’m going to get judged’.”

While mental health is now topic often raised throughout conversation and online, it is still considered taboo. Jackson credits this to society’s mentality towards mental health, because often, people still undermine the internal pain and suffering it inflicts on its victims. Mental illness does not discriminate, it can affect people from all socio-economic backgrounds, cultures and religions.

“People have said to me ‘you’re seeking attention,’ ‘get over it,’ ‘just be happy,’ the classic man up,” said Jackson.

“I’ve had people say to me ‘you could not come because you’re going to bring the mood down’. That was a stage where I was really low and needed friends.”

Jackson took to social media, posting and sharing images about depression and other mental illnesses, and his story. “I’ve been non-stop raising awareness on Instagram, Facebook and by talking about it in-person,” he said. “Hopefully I will inspire people who are maybe going through the same time; that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if you don’t see it.”

He hopes in the future that his advocacy to break the mental health stigma could expand from social media to real-life audiences.

Scott Jackson is passionate about sharing his story to challenge the stigma of mental illness. (By Scott Jackson)

“I’d probably talk to a small group – I’m not great with huge crowds, that’s where my anxiety kicks in,” he said.

“But definitely I would talk to small groups, particularly young men; teenagers especially. Teenage depression is really hard. A lot of teenagers would have mates who would tease them because they wouldn’t understand.”

Song-writing has been an indispensable tool in Jackson’s recovery.

“I never go through a day without any sort of music related stuff,” he said. “I’ve never been really good at opening up about stuff, and I’m still not great. But that’s why I write the songs.”

His own songs for now have aided him in overcoming the inability to express himself. Jackson’s songs depict his experiences, detailing negative and positive emotion he has experienced. “They’re very dark songs, but it’s only because of the times,” he said. “When I’m doing music I’m really confident in what I’m doing; the instrument, the writing – doesn’t matter, the playing,” he said. “I want to write songs about raising awareness for mental health, particularly depression, ‘cause that’s the one I relate to the most.”

“When you’re expressing, when you’re playing music on front of a crowd or performing it, with an instrument or with your voice, you are essentially going through this therapeutic aspect of yourself; self-healing and expressing yourself through music is very common,” Dr Susino said.

In addition to Jackson’s efforts, other young men have used social media to raise awareness about mental health by sharing their own stories, as well as informing the public of ways they can break the stigma around receiving help for mental illnesses. Over the last few months, a challenge has emerged on Facebook raising awareness for men’s mental health. If you are nominated, you must either donate $200 to a mental health organisation of your choosing, or eat two raw eggs, followed by raw sugar, and a shot of hard liquor, before chugging a beer.

Statistics published to Beyond Blue’s website determined that the likelihood of men dying from suicide is three times higher than women. In 2018, Beyond Blue reported that approximately six men across Australia died by suicide each day.

An important reminder that one can overcome anything remains on Jackson’s right middle finger; a black ring made of a glass-like, plastic material. A thin, teal line in the ring’s centre represents suicide awareness.

“A lot of people think that the only way to save someone’s life is that you have to do it physically,” Jackson said.

“It’s not true; I am living proof that music can save someone’s life.”

If this story has raised any issues for you, support is available. 

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Lifeline: 13 11 14