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Making Mental Health Cool, A Look Inside Demi Lovato’s Wellness Workshops

Pop singer Demi Lovato is known for being outspoken about her past problems with addiction and bipolar disorder. And now Lovato’s taking what she’s learned on tour with her and letting her fans in on a secret. FM89’s Ezra David Romero attended Lovato’s concert in San Jose last month to get in on that info.

Tori Tatum is a Demi Lovato super fan. The twentysomething has been to a dozen or so of Lovato’s shows, including two on the pop star’s current tour, “Future Now,” with Nick Jonas.

“Her voice is just amazing,” Tatum says. “You never know what she is going to sing. She does a lot of surprises on her tours.”

"The key is to make mental health mainstream. We have to make it as mainstream as physical health." - Demi Lovato

A couple hours before the show Tatum and about 200 others line up in front of the SAP Center in San Jose for a chance of glimpsing the former Disney Channel stars. They’ve been handpicked to attend a “wellness workshop” before the concert. The event’s led by Mike Bayer. He’s the guy that helped Lovato through her struggles with addiction, eating disorders, and continued bipolar disorder. Lovato says she first asked Bayer for help when she realized she needed it, but didn’t really want it.

“We’ve gotten in so many heated arguments and debates over the past couple years, but ultimately he always knew what was right for me,” says Lovato. “Because of that I was able to get sober.”

Four and half years of sobriety later, Lovato says she wants to remove the stigma around discussing mental health. For a pop star who’s come out of perhaps the shiniest celebrity-generating machine in the business, the pairing doesn’t feel quite like the usual “celebrity with a cause.” She says she invited Bayer and his team on tour with her so they can directly reach out to her fans.  His company called CAST is paying for the workshops.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to use my voice as a platform for something more than just singing,” says Lovato. “If I can do that through mental health and mental health care, I want to.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Demi Lovato fans lined up before the workshop

The workshop starts out high-energy. The emcee pumps the crowd up with pop songs but then gets real deep, real fast. “Anybody in this room ever been mildly depressed or ever been lost in state of what you felt like was a stuckness in your life? Look around it’s nearly every hand in the room.”

At this point Lovato walks into the room. She waves, smiles and then sits down on a leather couch. Like her fans, she’s there to take part in the workshop. That’s when Kevin Hines takes the stage.

"I've never had [mental health] conversations at home. It's like taboo to talk about." - Tori Tatum

“When I was 19 and my life changed dramatically in four seconds,” Hines explained to the crowd. “It was the four seconds it took me to fall from the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Tori Tatum and Kylie Prentice love Demi Lovato. They attended the workshop.

He didn’t’ die after jumping in the year 2000. There’s something in these testimonials that reminds me of junior high Christian bible camp. But when I look around at the fans, they’re getting the message. San Ramon native Kylie Prentice says she didn’t expect the session to be so deep.

“It wasn’t what he wanted and I feel like him sharing that with everybody opened our eyes that like, oh my god, if I went through with that it might not be what I want either,” says Prentice.

It’s debatable whether the youth who really need mental health care the most can be adequately reached by a short two hour large-group session tied to a pop show.  But Mike Bayer says getting young people talking about their issues at all is what he’s focusing on first.

“What we try to do on tour is give people that opportunity to get some tools to be a better version of themselves,” says Bayer.

After the workshop, Bayer’s crew offers advice on where to find help, and I find myself wondering if the point of this event will stick. For super fans like Tori Tatum, it has. She’s taking what she learned home.

“I’ve never had [mental health] conversations at home,” Tatum says. “It’s like taboo to talk about. You can talk about physical pain or whatever, but, every time something mental comes up, it’s just shut off.”

Credit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
Demi Lovato at the 2015 American Music Awards.

Later, in Lovato’s dressing room surrounded by her beauty team, the singer says it’s just that attitude she’s hoping to turn around. She recently announced that she is part owner of the personal development company on tour with her.

“The key is to make mental health mainstream,” Lovato says. “We have to make it as mainstream as physical health. When you take care of your mind, everything else falls into place.”

If it seems like something of a messy, complex subject for a pop star who rose to fame on a squeaky-clean image — it is. But at this point, Lovato says as she rushes off to perform, what does she have to lose? 

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.