I know, it’s only Rock ‘N’ Roll, but I like it: Athens youth rock camp teaches more than music.

Instructor Shauna Greeson plays her original song on the first day of camp. (Photo by Pamela Baxendale)

“Hi everyone. My name is Shauna and I’m going to play a song I wrote for a friend when they were blue.” Twenty teenagers watch the stage, instruments sprawled awkwardly across laps. Everyone is holding a white piece of paper bearing a number somewhere between one and 30. Mine is 14. The room is quiet. She strums the ukulele and sings a story that admits sadness, but offers hope and encouragement: You do not have to be alone.

Cheers and applause echo in the room when Greeson finishes. “Ok, who’s up next?” shouts instructor Peter Alvanos. It’s June 8, the first day of Camp Amped at Nuçi’s Space, a non-profit resource center in Athens, Georgia, that has been helping musicians for 15 years. Located in a renovated electric motor repair shop within walking distance of a thriving bar scene in this college town, Nuçi’s Space is both a place to practice and a lifeline for creative people in trouble.

Nuçi’s runs two sessions of Camp Amped each summer for teens under 18. Most participants in this session have been here before. Two kids who used to live in Athens have traveled across the country to be here. One camper is in remission from cancer. It’s my first time as an observer, and so far the morning’s activities look like a typical rock and roll camp, with a few life skills thrown in for good measure. But something feels different.

It’s Cat’s turn. She is 13 years old and has her large, black and sunburst bass draped across her small frame. She has prepared her favorite Metallica song. Bob Sleppy, executive director of Nuçi’s Space, and I stand at the back, toothy grins stretching across our faces. My shoes are filling with sweat. I’ve performed a thousand times and have never had this captive an audience or been so nervous. Did I mention I am 30 years old and sing professionally?

Alvanos calls out, “Next!” My turn.

“Hey y’all. My name is Ansley and I’m going to sing you an Aretha Franklin tune.” There’s no backing band and I’m alone with a microphone and a spotlight. I sing two verses of Natural Woman and accept the applause.

Stepping off stage, I realize failure doesn’t happen here, only experiences. I’ve just survived the musical introduction exercise that kicks off every Camp Amped session. The first day has always been Sleppy’s favorite. He sees the kids entering into a contract with each other and says the agreement is, “I’m going to step up on stage, I’m going to play in front of you and I’m going to trust that if I fall flat on my face, y’all are gonna to be there to catch me.”

Campers wait their turn to take the stage. (Photo by Pamela Baxendale)

How It Began

In an effort to expand awareness of mental health issues and services to a younger demographic of musicians, Sleppy and a team of University of Georgia interns came up with the idea for camp in 2006, the first two-week session kicking off the following summer. Since opening their doors in 2000, Nuçi’s Space drew upon its experience helping uninsured and low-income musicians get treatment for depression and related illnesses, as a way to lower suicide risk. The 1996 death of Athens musician Nuçi Phillips, who was 22 years old when he took his own life on Thanksgiving Day, drove his family to create the organization that bears his name. He had struggled with clinical depression for the previous 5 years.

“The way we want to ensure good mental health is not to knock someone over the head with it,” says Linda Phillips, his mother and founder of the Nuçi Phillips Memorial Foundation. Instead, the organization aims to help people manage the daily stress and worries that sometimes become unbearable. The goal of the space, through Camp Amped and all of its programs, is to promote a healthy, safe, and creative environment that cultivates mental health awareness and instills confidence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 41,000 people kill themselves in the United States each year, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people between 10 and 24 years old. Suicide is especially acute in the Athens music community, where we have lost several local musicians in recent years, including nationally recognized figures like Vic Chesnutt.

Year-round clients at Nuçi’s Space are usually between 25 and 35 years old. Camp Amped serves as an outreach program to those as young as 11 and as old as 17.

“We disguise it as a rock camp,” says Sleppy, executive director. “We use the band as a metaphor for families, knowing how to communicate with one another, knowing when to step out front and make your voice heard and when to step back and let other people’s voices be heard.”

This year, 48 campers auditioned to take 40 slots, 20 per session. Some were awarded scholarships to assist with the $650 cost of attending the two-week session. There are eight instructors, most Athens-area musicians. Some have personally struggled with depression and suicide, others have lost family members, and some teach because they love how it makes them feel. Dan Nettles, a jazz musician who has performed for the likes of President Jimmy Carter, has been the head counselor since camp’s beginning and chooses instructors and campers with great care. He’s looking for people who will benefit from the experience.

“Most instructors want kids who can play music, and then sometimes there are kids who fit into the mission statement of Nuçi’s Space and need to be there,” he says. Ideally, he identifies young people who qualify on both counts. Some of the kids who attend camp struggle with issues like depression and anxiety. Some have even attempted suicide.

Let’s Talk About It

Instructors and campers circle up to begin their day. (Photo by Pamela Baxendale)

On the first morning of camp before the musical introductions, instructors lay out the rules: Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. Be impeccable with your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best. Outside of not leaving the property and no violence, these are the non-negotiables.

Each day begins in front of the stage at Nuçi’s Space, with campers and instructors in a standing or seated circle; most mornings begin with vocal warm-ups, other times with meditation or even yoga. The campers then split into ensembles and rehearse for 2 hours in one of the building’s 4 practice spaces, breaking for lunch around noon, then heading back to rehearsal. The day ends with an exercise called apples and onions, where everyone calls out their personal highs and lows from the day.

During the two weeks, campers work on a combination of cover songs, as well as original music. This session’s theme incorporated music from Athens. The campers learned songs by R.E.M, The B-52s, The Whigs, and Of Montreal to name a few. On the second Thursday of camp, local recording studios donate their time and let campers record as many songs as they can during a day-long session. Campers then play these songs for their parents and friends at the finale.

One afternoon hour is spent in a session called Survival Skills for Creative Minds. Campers are given a notebook and led through a guided discussion on topics like goals for camp, performance tips, and the business of being a musician. This gives younger musicians a toolbox to pull from as they become professionals in the music industry. But the most valuable topics go beyond logistics. What inspires you about music? What pieces of advice would you give your younger self?

Journals for the Survival Skills sessions. (Photo by Pamela Baxendale)

The first Thursday of camp, when the group has been together for four days, instructors talk about depression and mental health awareness. They explain why Nuçi’s Space exists, discuss warning signs of depression, and how to ask for help. They share personal stories and invite the campers to tell about their own painful or hopeless moments. This is a highly emotional session. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing, but many do.

“A lot of people coming here have a lot of issues and things they want to talk about, but wouldn’t feel safe in any normal environment,” says 16-year old Gracen. This is her third year coming to camp. “People say things they might not even say to their parents. It’s such a special kind of environment that camp creates where you feel comfortable talking about things and being vulnerable.”

Jordan rehearses on drums. (Photo by Pamela Baxendale)

Despite the heavy nature of the subject, for many kids this is the heart of Camp Amped. This is true for Jordan, who is participating in her fourth summer. Asked about the highpoint of two weeks at Nuçi’s Space, the 14-year old drummer said, “As a person, I’m going to have to go with the self-harm, depression, just talking about the deeper things in life that musicians sometimes have a tendency to fall into.”

I believe I would have learned a lot from participating in something like Camp Amped. The kids learn to communicate in ways that even some of my adult friends have a difficult time with. It would be easy to assume that talking to them about heavy issues like depression and suicide might be too heavy, but on the contrary the open discussion and safe environment seems to reduce stigma.

Camp Amped has been a welcome escape for 17-year old veteran Jacob, who is about to “graduate” from camp.

“It was always important to me just because I felt what depression and anxiety were like from a really early age. I had no idea what it was, it was just a strange feeling that I didn’t understand, but after coming here I realized that depression and anxiety were a little more normal that I once thought,” said Jacob, who plays guitar. “After learning easier ways to deal with it, I want to be able to pass that down to some of the younger kids who I assume probably deal with some similar things.”

Drummer Joe Rowe is a first-time camp instructor who has been recording and touring with The Glands, an Athens band, since the mid-90s. He expected these conversations with teens to be harder than they are. He is refreshed by the openness of the campers and recognizes how infectious the positive attitude of camp has quickly affected his life.

“I notice a change in me when I get out into the world away from here and I’m having rehearsals with my own band, and all the relationships with all the people that I have in my life outside of Nuçi’s Space,” says Rowe. “It’s changed my brain I feel like. I hope it continues.”

Rowe (second from left) assists with group rehearsal. (Photo by Pamela Baxendale)

Rowe’s feeling that camp has “changed his brain” is probably right. Any time we learn a new skill, we form a new connection, or neural pathway, in the brain. It is these connections that create plasticity in our brain and continue to allow us to learn new skills. As we age, plasticity decreases. With a disease like depression, the connections are compromised and/or damaged, making it virtually impossible to restore the pathways without some form of treatment.

“So the most important thing to remember is that depression is a brain disorder, it’s a brain disease,” says Dr. Philip Holmes, who leads the neuroscience program at the University of Georgia. His lab is within walking distance of Nuçi’s Space. “The cells, the neurons, are losing their ability to form synapses and regulate those synapses or connections efficiently. It’s more of an anatomical issue than a chemical issue.”

So, What Works?

Holmes says that evidence-based treatments like certain medications, exercise, and cognitive behavioral therapy, or talk therapy, all work because “they get at that fundamental issue of plasticity.” In a setting like Camp Amped, kids are not only learning how to book a show or new practice techniques, but they develop new ways to think about depression. They are able to openly discuss their own struggles with community support, as well as learn new coping skills, boosting their brain’s ability to form new pathways.

Camp Amped is much like Sources of Strength, a national program that uses trained peer counselors to promote healthy behavior and reduce the risk of suicide among high school students. The program emphasizes medical access, mental health, family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, and spirituality. And it works, according to an article published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Camp Amped has most of these elements. Through music, camp provides a common language that connects campers and instructors. Kids hear things like, “Awesome guitar solo!” or “You seem down today, would you like to talk?” They are provided with band leaders who can help them finish an original song and are placed in bands that end up working together as a unit. Nuçi’s Space affords the kids an opportunity to feel accepted, loved, and encouraged.

Beyond Camp

This environment experienced by campers, is a product Nuçi’s Space provides to their clients year-round. Last year the organization served as a trusted access point for hundreds of musicians and community members, seeking mental health services. The staff of the organization serve as a conduit between client and mental health professionals, making it easier to bridge the gap for getting treatment.

Since January of this year, the organization has subsidized mental health care for approximately 250 uninsured musicians who pay only $15 for each appointment. Most have depression or an anxiety disorder. Nearly twice that number of insured musicians are shepherded to counselors, physicians or other service providers appropriate for their needs.

“My job is to clear a pathway to make access to treatment easier and take away as many barriers as we can,” says Lesley Cobbs, counseling advocate for the organization. “If we can help directly, we go through our counselors and psychiatrists. We’ve got yoga, we’ve got many different kinds of programs, but our main two are counseling and psychiatry.”

“There are a lot of risk factors built into being a working musician,” says Michelle Castleberry, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in Athens. Between irregular working hours and sometimes getting paid in free drinks, it can be difficult to stay healthy. Drug and alcohol addiction runs rampant through the local music community and not all can afford health insurance. “The poverty stuff is there. Not having access to a lot of mental and physical well-care wears on you after a while,” she says.

For Nuçi’s Space, music is inseparable from mental health care. A band can rent a room furnished with music equipment to prepare for a gig just play for fun. Recovery from a psychiatric disorder is seldom a quick journey and Linda Phillips recognized that a person’s feelings ebb and flow during treatment. She thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if these people had a place to go? There are going to be understanding people there if you want to talk, you’ll feel safe, you might even feel a little bit better.” Phillips’ vision is a reality.

Veteran campers Jacob and Audrey rehearse in one of the fully, furnished practice rooms. (Photo by Pamela Baxendale)

“Nuçi’s Space is a safe space to come and play music purely for the sake of playing music,” says Shauna Greeson, who sang her own song on the first day of camp. “There’s not going to be a round of shots. It’s a healthy environment.” Greeson, a local musician and veteran Camp Amped instructor, credits the organization saved her life. In 2001, she was 22 years old, gripped by addiction and depression.

“I called the hotline one night, scared, like really scared. I didn’t know if I should call 911, but I knew I was a danger to myself, but there was still this part of me that wanted to live. I hadn’t completely lost all hope.” Linda Phillips called her back within 15 minutes and got her a counseling appointment the very next morning. Today, Greeson says Nuçi’s Space “is our most precious gift in Athens.”

I can’t help but agree with Greeson. On June 20, after being part of the camp tribe for two weeks, I watched 20 campers perform for parents, friends, instructors, and fans of Nuçi’s Space. I stood near the back, eyes brimming with happy tears, then rushed to dance to the all-girl ensemble performing a Bar-B-Q Killers tune.

Campers perform at the finale.

These kids are ready.

They have been given the tools to deal with whatever life throws at them, whether that’s depression, school bullies, or playing a sold-out show to thousands of people.

Hampton, 17, wrapped me in his open arms. “Thank you for being here this session. I wish we got to talk more.” These kids crave connection and know how to express their feelings. For every curveball that life throws them, they will know help is available. A few days before the finale, I interviewed Audrey, a 17-year old bass player. I asked her what she wanted people to know about Nuçi’s Space and Camp Amped. I leave you with this.

“They save lives. I’ve been through some pretty rough things. I am recovering from cancer and I remember a nurse told me, ‘You just need to think of one thing, you need to find one thing that you’re looking forward to, like a reason to live for and it can be anything. It can be big, going to college, or small, making it to your little brother’s tenth birthday’ and my thing was Camp Amped. I couldn’t really imagine not being able to participate in it for my last year. It’s just really a life changing experience.”