Today’s Metal & Mike is bringing you a very special editorial with an important message.
While mental illness and suicide have been appearing in more headlines throughout the music industry, these topics are far from being new issues. The idea of a famous person taking their own life may be baffling to some; how can someone with so much money and popularity, and who gets to do what they love for a living, want to take their own life?
But mental illness does not discriminate; it can tear down anyone without reason, making any external joys irrelevant. For Chimaira vocalist Mark Hunter, his struggles with mental illness have been with him since an early age. The Cleveland, Ohio heavy metal band has released seven studio albums and toured numerous countries, fueling the adrenaline and passion of fans all around the world. But even with all their success, the band’s journey has not always been easy for Hunter. As someone who suffers from depression and bipolar disorder, his life has come with incredible highs, as well as heartbreaking lows.
It’s his experiences dealing with mental illness, along with meeting film director Nick Cavalier, that Hunter finds himself the focus of a new mental health documentary entitled, Down Again. Named after the Chimaira song, the documentary explores Hunter’s life and artistic career dealing with mental illness. Not only does the film provide insight into his suffering, but also offers a look at how art has helped him in challenging times. The film will be available for viewing today in honor of World Mental Health Day (link below).
Speaking to discovering heavy music and using it as a coping mechanism, Hunter says, “When I was younger, I thought heavy music was about rebelling. Getting paddled in school for having a KISS lunchbox eluded me to the fact that this was more than just music. In my teen’s, grunge acts like Alice in Chains were metal enough for me to get into and the lyrical content, and [the] delivery mirrored emotions I felt. There was a realness to it.”
Continuing, “Hardcore bands also had this street vibe about them that was descriptive like rap can be. Long story short, the emotions feel real, and that sense of strength in numbers that comes with being in an arena with thousands of metal-heads is powerful.”
In 2014 Chimaira decided to end the band. On Hunter’s end of things, touring and financial struggles had started to wear him down; working himself to exhaustion, and with little means to get by, he knew it was time to find something else that would bring him peace. Today he is a photographer, working for weddings, commercial photography, and a variety of other artistic projects.
This work fuels his creativity, allowing him to explore more of his passions and find happiness. Speaking to how art helps him in challenging times, he shares, “Staying busy is key. If I don’t necessarily feel creative, I might take time to organize my business or learn more about the craft. The worst times are when my drive is low, and I can’t focus on anything. Picture the time people spend on Netflix just browsing, but that’s going on inside your head when trying to figure out what to do. I’ll just get stuck sometimes.”
Speaking to whether creating art is an escape or a confrontation regarding his mental illness, he states, “It’s a mixture of both. I feel best when I am contributing to society. When I was younger, I learned how to cook and that preoccupied my mind and allowed me to be artistic. Then it was music. Now it’s photography. I need to figure out how to combine the three. I just like creating things with my hands and sharing it with the world. It doesn’t have to be on a large scale either. Sometimes the satisfaction can stem from making a nice dinner for my lady.”
Nick Cavalier is a director of films, commercials, music videos, and a character-driven storyteller. He and Hunter met at the Acting Out! Festival in Cleveland — a festival put on in 2017 to raise mental health awareness. Moved by his story, Cavalier approached Hunter regarding the idea for the film.
Speaking to what about Hunter’s story grabbed his attention, he says, “Mark’s story is interesting in its contrast, as he had such high highs and low lows in his life naturally outside of the mental health angle. One day he is on tour seeing the world with his idols playing in front of 60k people, and the next day he is by himself in snowy Ohio eating a burger next to a steel mill. There is a beautiful lesson of humility in his story that I loved. Almost like Icarus, and sometimes like Sisyphus, he has to carry the weight figuratively and move forward. Then you add mental illness into his story, and you have a potential recipe for tragedy. What impresses me about Mark is his resilience, and I hope that’s the takeaway of the film.”
Cavalier is also an individual who suffers from mental illness (type 1 bipolar disorder in particular). Where he also began suffering at a young age, he was able to find help through art. And it was thanks to art that he began creating work focusing on mental health awareness.
“I was a troubled kid myself,” he says. “I was in and out of mental hospitals from 10 – 16 and struggled with medication, manic outbursts, and much much more. It got really bad around the time I discovered metal, and the music was something that really helped me recover. I got involved in mental health awareness almost by accident. I made a film in 2014 about Derek Hess [an American artist], called ‘Forced Perspective.’ While we were shooting, [he] and I bonded over our issues and how the art helped us cope; [mental illness] became sort of the villain in the film for Derek. His demons were the antagonist and [they] forced him and [I] into a conversation we were happy to have. It’s important to demystify the tortured artist stereotype.”
Hunter and Cavalier still deal with mental illness to this day; but the act of creating art (whether for themselves or sharing it with others), helps to ease the struggles of life. Hunter has made tremendous strides in his life to find healthy coping mechanisms and strengthen his understanding of his mental illness.
Mental health education is an essential key to fighting stigma and creating pathways for those suffering to find help. For Hunter, he sees people’s lack of care and understanding to be a toxic element that hurts proper awareness of mental health. “Nobody understands how to deal with these things,” Hunter says. “I see a lot of people guessing or throwing anything and everything at it as if it were a fire that needed putting out. Substance abuse to combat chemical imbalances can [also] have serious negative connotations.”
Speaking to his struggles and coping through art, Cavalier shares, “These days [I struggle] way less so then when I was younger; I got all the evil out of my system, but the demon is still there. Lately, I feel it coming up like a burp, and I’m able to recognize I am about to shoot into mania and I do healthy things to help me reach emotional equilibrium. I sort of self-medicate with the work. I believe that flow states are especially important for people with mental health issues as it takes you outside of yourself. The act of making art by its very nature is selfless, and if you do it correctly you cease to exists while making. And so do your issues.”
Down Again is a fascinating and necessary experience. While we as a society bring up the topic of mental illness (and have even made some progress), stigma still surrounds it. Through Hunter’s story, Cavalier offers viewers a window into an invisible, agonizing hell; but through that hell, he is also able to demonstrate the power of the human spirit, and how hope is possible. “With folks like Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell, and Anthony Bourdain taking their own lives,” Cavalier says, “I hope Mark’s story can provide some hope in a world that seems to be so hopeless lately.”
You can watch the documentary today via this link. And to learn more about World Mental Health Day, you can visit this website. And if you or anyone you know is in need of help, please call the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (you can also learn more here).