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Inside a Mental Health Center Aimed Exclusively at Musicians

Since it opened in 2000, Nuçi's Space has helped more than 1,700 musicians in times of mental need.

by Annie Armstrong
Mar 14 2017, 3:08am

All photos by Lauren Allen Ledbetter

Among Athens, Georgia's hodgepodge of frat rats from the University of Georgia, rednecks, and Jeff Mangum–worshipping musicians lies Nuçi's Space: a suicide-prevention center specializing in depression for musicians. 

On Thanksgiving Day, 1996, Athens resident and musician Nuçi Phillips took his own life. In the wake of his death, his mother, Linda Phillips, and Nuçi's good friend and musical collaborator, David Barbe (of Drive-By Truckers fame) wanted to do something to commemorate his life and try to save others from falling victim to the clinical depression that led to Nuçi's death.

"I think that to create art, it requires being more in touch with your feelings," Barbe told me. "It requires introspection. It's either that creative people are more susceptible to depression, or emotionally fragile people need to create. There are a lot of great break-up records out there."

A few weeks after Nuçi's death, Barbe and Phillips came up with the idea for Nuçi's Space. Using donations from friends and family, they bought an empty auto body shop in downtown Athens and refurbished it with four complete practice spaces with in-house drum kits and mic setups available for use by anyone, regardless of whether you're using Nuçi's Space for help. 

The center acts as a kind of middleman for those seeking help. As soon as you reach out, you're paired with a trained "advocate," who offers immediate advice if needed, informs you about the type of support groups available at Nuçi's, and connects you to Nuçi's-affiliated therapists or psychiatrists. 

What makes the service particularly noteworthy is that it all costs only $15, regardless of your insurance status. Through fundraising benefits and private donations, Nuçi's Space is able to front the complete cost of the subsequent counseling sessions. 

Commonly, when those suffering from depression reach out for help, that decision is spurned from reaching a critical point with their symptoms—whether it be more serious suicidal thoughts, self-harm, or just not being able to leave bed for one day too long. Unfortunately, coming to the decision that you need counseling doesn't create change overnight. The process of finding a therapist that's affordable, on your insurance network, or even one that just has an open time to meet can take weeks. This uncertain time span can be the difference between life and death for those facing suicidal thoughts. Nuçi himself had requested an appointment for counseling through his college and died within his four week waiting period. For that reason, Nuçi's Space also provides informal group therapy sessions onthe site to help bridge that gap. 

"A big goal of mine is to stamp out the stigma attached to brain disorders," said Philips. "We decided that we didn't want Nuçi's Space to be a clinical setting, and we didn't want any therapists on site. We have practice spaces, a library that pertains to music, music business and psychology, a coffee shop, and offices where we do the support groups. My goal was to approach them in their own territory. I think Nuçi would have come here."

The type of external counselors Nuçi's Space recommends to its clients are people with experience in treating artists specifically. Inconsistent working hours, uncertain income, creative frustration, and often isolated working hours are typical for musicians. Almost all of the people who work at or with Nuçi's are also musicians, so they understand that their clients are willing to accept those downsides to the creative lifestyle. Many therapists might be inclined to encourage those torn apart by a creative career to switch into something more reliable, if these conditions are bringing them to a depressive state. Nuçi's understands why musicians want to sacrifice so much for their music and encourages them to stick with it. The nuances of an artist's mind are essential to understanding the mission of the center. Centers like Nuçi's Space, which focus on creative individuals, have been cropping up across America since the mid 90s, with similar facilities in cities including Austin, Boise, and Dallas

"A creative mind is just a lot more temperamental. I think they feel things differently, sometimes more deeply," said Phillips. "We had one young musician in Athens who was a great guy and a great musician, and he was bipolar. When he was in a manic phase, he would go downtown and shoot people with his paint gun. Of course, this is not acceptable behavior. So we got him to come into Nuçi's Space, without his paintball gun. But here, he could say whatever he wanted, he could curse, shout, cry, yell—but he was safe. And everyone there knew what was going on, and we didn't judge him. We tried to take care of him until he got out of his manic phase. I wanted a safe space that was run by musicians who are also really good listeners and know what to do when someone is in trouble."

The building itself looks like a cross between a gas station and a hipster coffee shop. The town of Athens is so small that most locals are bound to wander in at some point. Barbe (who also runs the University of Georgia's Music Business program) predicts that almost every musician in Athens has some kind of tie to the space, whether they use their practice spaces, play their benefit concerts, get help from them, or just go there to hang out, even if they're not seeking help. As the demand for safe spaces on rises across the nation. Nuçi's Space seems like the model establishment. 

"I've been going to Nuçi's to practice for years starting in college and up until like last week. And I went to them for treatment, too, a couple years in, and it was really easy," explains JJ Posway, a local Athens musician. "It does feel like they picked therapists meant for creative people. When I would talk about life choices with other therapists, I would feel kind of judged. Instead of listening, it felt like they would give me weird advice instead."

One Icelandic study of 86,000 people found that creative types are 25 percent more likely to carry a gene that leads to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Another study by Victoria University in Australia found that people who work in the Australian entertainment industry are ten times more likely to be anxious and twice as likely to attempt suicide than the general population.

The problem is that instead of doing anything about it, we continue to accept mental illness as a side effect of a creative career and even glamorize it. The trope of the troubled artist has been so accepted throughout history that it seems to have become accepted as a norm or even as a necessary evil to create impactful art. Barbe concludes, "I think if you went through any of your favorite artists, musical or otherwise, you would find a lot of emotional roller coasters... I just really feel for people who are in that much pain that they feel like ending it is all they've got left."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the services of Nuçi's Space cost $10.  

Find out more about Nuçi's space here.

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Nuçi's Space