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Jason DeShaw

Montana country musician Jason DeShaw raises awareness for mental illness research and recovery through his concerts. He will be one the entertainers on hand for May Fest, sponsored by Billings Mental Health Advisory Board, on May 1 at Veterans Park in Billings.

What country musician Jason DeShaw didn’t know about himself almost killed him four years ago.

The Plentywood native was on his way up, performing in Europe and across North America while simultaneously recording five albums since he entered the music business in 2003. DeShaw was on tour in Canada in 2010 when he was crippled by a severe mania brought on by an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He was suffering from mental illness, and without understanding what was happening to him, he tried to put out the fire by drinking.

“It came out of nowhere and hit me like a freight train,” DeShaw said. “For the last four years, I’ve been trying to make it through and keep up with my music. But, at times I’m just trying to survive it.”

DeShaw, who is now based in Helena, calls his struggle with alcoholism and mental illness his journey rather than his burden. Instead of hiding his illness like many performers might, DeShaw chose to deal with it head-on by going public.

He was never hospitalized at the State Mental Hospital in Warm Springs, but in January, DeShaw decided to perform at the hospital to let the patients know they had an ally.

When the steel bars hit the cement floor behind him in the lockdown unit at Warm Springs, known as the D-wing, it was a chilling feeling. But, then DeShaw remembered his musical hero Johnny Cash who performed for prisoners and lived by the mantra that all human beings have value.

On his blog, DeShaw wrote that he was suffering with “crippling depression” at the time of his scheduled concert at Warm Springs, but he got through it, emerging with a new sense of respect for the patients and staff there.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness took note of DeShaw’s advocacy work and in September, he was honored during the national convention in Washington, D.C. DeShaw was awarded the Lionel Aldridge Champion Award and DeShaw was praised for exhibiting courage and leadership as he deals with mental illness.

“Mental illness has made me a better human being,” DeShaw told the crowd.

DeShaw started writing songs that captured some of his struggles, attempting to make the fight a universal one to help others relate.

“I try to make it so that one listener can get something different than somebody else. When songs hit me, they are usually written in three to five minutes. For me, it’s connecting to something beyond me. I hang onto the pen and have fun,” DeShaw said.

His song, “Crazy Town,” which he performed at the NAMI convention, describes the surreal moments he’s had in his quest for meaning.

“I’ve been called crazy in a world that’s not quite sane,” DeShaw sings in his soft twang.

Receiving the award and getting the chance to meet national leaders in the field of mental health made the experience “the best night of my life,” DeShaw said.

“What was really neat about that night, there was everybody from people suffering from mental illness to delegates from the White House to nationally respected psychologists. Even with such a diverse group, there was such a deep connection in that room.”

At one of his lowest points, when he was a patient at a Bozeman-area psychiatric center, DeShaw made a new friend: Kostas, a nationally known composer and musician from Montana.

“I talked my counselors into letting me go to Bozeman Hot Springs. I saw Kostas in the pool and I swam across the pool and told him I wanted to buy him a steak.”

Kostas has since offered to produce DeShaw’s new album and serves as a mentor to him.

When we spoke by phone, DeShaw talked of his show the night before in Regina, Canada, where he was paid to play a private party for some rugby buddies. But he was just as excited to talk about the free gig he performed just hours before at a retirement home near Plentywood.

“I played at the old folks home where my grandmother, Babe, lives. One of my friends there is a 97-year-old World War II veteran. These are the people who make us, who make Montana what it is.”

DeShaw took almost a full minute to consider a question about whether his illness has been a force of destruction or creative rebirth.

“Our deepest struggles can be our saving grace,” DeShaw said. “That’s what makes us who we are. I’ve been brought to my knees by mental illness. I’ve almost died a few times and I’ve been in psychiatric units. One of the benefits is, I don’t feel like I’m better than anyone else. What matters is that we treat one another with kindness.”

DeShaw is partnering with Blue Cross Blue Shield for a 10-city tour in 2015, “Serenity in the Storm.”

The tour will stop in five rural communities and five larger towns, including Billings. It will feature DeShaw speaking and performing music to let people know there’s hope.

“Sometimes it’s just an ounce of hope that saves people,” DeShaw said. “My goal is to get the message out across the state. We need to talk about mental illness more and be more accepting. A lot of people say there is a stigma, but it’s downright discrimination. One in four Americans is affected by mental illness, either directly or indirectly. This is the civil rights movement of our time.”

Putting the handsome face and twang of a Montana cowboy to a disease like mental illness can be a strong first step toward gaining the acceptance and respect that the mentally ill deserve.

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