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William Fitzsimmons: From Mental Health to Music

William Fitzsimmons

Singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons now finds himself on the brink of underground neo-folk stardom after working as a mental health therapist. Fitzsimmons was born and raised in a Pittsburgh home filled with music by his parents, both blind. William's childhood surroundings were vivid with sounds to replace what eyes could not see. The house teemed with pianos, guitars, trombones, talking birds, classical records, family sing-a-longs, bedtime stories and the bellowing of a pipe organ, built by his father.

For many years, music was merely a hobby for Fitzsimmons while he worked with individuals living with mental illness. Today, William’s vocation rests “somewhere between a singing therapist and a counselor who writes songs.” Media, fans and critics liken him to musicians such as Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith, but it’s safe to say that fans of Band of Horses, Amos Lee, Damien Rice and even Jason Mraz or David Gray would enjoy Fitzsimmons’ work. His songs have been featured on Grey’s Anatomy and Army Wives.

NAMI: You’ve said that music is a healing experience, but you’ve also said, “Music is music and it’s not supposed to be a panacea for people’s wounds.” This is a bit of a contradiction. Where would you take a stand on that if you had to?

WF: Music can be very healing. Some people approach music as a cure-all, whereas I tend to see healing as much more of holistic thing. There are some situations in which a song is a wonderful, curative thing. There are some situations in which a song is a wonderful, curative thing but people still need a friend, counseling or pharmacology. I’ve come across people who are so steeped in art they think it can cure. I think it’s good for unlocking problems but not necessarily curing them.

NAMI: What are you working on now?

I’m writing a record that’s a musical collection about the mental illnesses listed in the DSM IV. It should be out in the fall of 2010.

NAMI: Tell us about your background in mental health.

WF: I graduated with a B.A. in psychology and then worked as a mental health technician in the psychiatric ward at Cooper Hospital in Camden, N.J., to see if I wanted to stay in the field. After that, I went to graduate school at Geneva College for mental health counseling. I think people who have an interest in psychology are trying to figure something out about themselves, too—a little bit of self-discovery. I knew that I had some unfinished business. That very first class I took in psychology drew me in—I wanted to investigate illness. I am a consumer; I was diagnosed with OCD back in college, and I fall into that small 5 or 10 percent of anorexics that are men. I had an outbreak in high school and one since, and I have anxiety disorders.

NAMI: What are your views on mental health practices such as medication and involuntary treatment?

WF: I grew accustomed to medication in the ward, and the education I had was not opposed to medicines. I’m a fan, [laughs] can I put it that way?—when medicine is used responsibly and when a clinician takes the time to assess whether it’s going to be helpful for treatment.

As far as involuntary treatment is concerned, I have friends who worked in forced treatment. It’s sort of cliché, but I think that people can only really be helped if they’re ready. Obviously if people have really debilitating illnesses and they can’t take care of themselves, well, they can’t really consent to treatment if they’re not lucid. You’d like to think that there’s an involved family and community. One of the themes I’ve struggled with is change. Do people ever really change? Obviously they can. I don’t know. Autonomy is the highest possible goal if it can be achieved.

NAMI: Did you see a lot of co-occurring disorders?

WF: Yes, my experiences working in Pennsylvania and New Jersey showed they were present in both urban and rural settings. But the city had higher rates of substance abuse. We saw a very high rate of co-morbidity and self-medicating.

NAMI: You also said working with people who live with mental illness was “rewarding like nothing else.” Can you elaborate?

WF: I slept a little better when I was working in psychology because you feel like you’re making a more direct impact on people’s lives—nobody can tell you that you’re not working when you go to your job. Now that I write songs and sell records, it feels like I’m cheating a little bit. I try to inject them with a therapeutic quality so even if I’m not sitting one-on-one with a person, hopefully I’m giving them something.

NAMI: You said you’re not sure a person can ever really change; does that internal conflict come from the theme of history repeating itself that comes through on your records?

WF: Yeah, I think so. I’m projecting that issue I have with change onto everyone else, whether it’s due to some psychiatric problem I’ve had or not. Whenever you mess up, you question whether of not you’ve made any progress at all. I was trying to not end up like my dad.

NAMI: What are some milestones you experienced as a mental health professional?

The unfortunate part of inpatient treatment is that you see people at their worst—during the acute part of an illness—which is rough. But we were very pleased to see people pop in, clean and sober, to say “hi” and “thank you.” When you saw someone again, however, and they were making mistakes like stopping their medication, it was sad. There was one woman in particular that lived with borderline personality disorder, which I experienced as extremely resistant to change. She worked with one of our psychiatrists for years and made marked improvements. That was great to see.

NAMI: Will you return to that profession?

WF: Yeah. I don’t know in what way or when. I’m not really a coincidence guy so I don’t think I would have spent as much time and money on education as I did just to leave it behind forever.

NAMI: Did you see any common threads when treating people who live with mental illness?

WF: The people who get better always seemed to have some sort of hope.

William Fitzsimmons dedicated an unreleased remix of "Goodmorning" from his Sparrow and the Crow album exclusively to users at www.strengthofus.org, NAMI’s social networking site for youth and young adults. "Goodmorning" will be released on the upcoming remix EP Derivatives. To hear more of William’s music, or learn about his tour dates and for other information, visit www.williamfitzsimmons.com.

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