Mental health problems are on the rise in America, and Godsmack’s Sully Erna knows it. He remembers being a troubled kid and all these years later, at 51, feels this is the area he wants to take on and try and do something about it on a major scale.
The frontman for the hard rock band — whose albums have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide — recently announced the launch of The Scars Foundation, a non-profit that will partner with various agencies to combat a broad spectrum of mental health issues, including bullying, suicide, depression, and addiction.
Scars Foundation partners include the Grammy's charitable arm MusiCares, which provides emergency health care and financial assistance to those in the music industry, and the American Society for Suicide Prevention. The foundationsn's name was inspired by Godsmack’s current single "Under Your Scars" from their 2018 album, When Legends Rise. Those who donate to The Scars Foundation receive a free download of the single.
Erna has in the past also worked with the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation to raise awareness of the American opioid crisis and 22 Kill, a veterans support group that combats PTSD in its members.
Samaritanmag spoke to Erna about the origins of The Scars Foundation, its goals, and the state of mental healthcare in America.
What prompted the creation of The Scars Foundation?
As I was writing and developing this record, I always write about things that are real to me and experiences that I've gone through. The song “Under Your Scars” was written about an event I went through with an individual who had some baggage, like we all do; some scars that you don't realize they have. So you push someone's buttons, and a lot of times they feel trapped and pull away, and you have a hard time understanding what happened. It just started making me think, and we ended up writing this song.
I've always wanted to do something with a non-profit, and I was just trying to think where my strength was. I wanted to do something to give back. Not that I don't have compassion for these topics, but I've never lost anyone to AIDS or cancer, or something like that, fortunately. I'm thinking “Where does my expertise lie?” Then I started thinking I was one of these troubled kids. I grew up on the streets of Boston, and I was in a lot of trouble and went through a lot of challenges and obstacles. I was thinking maybe this is where I can help the most because it's what I have experience at.
I started looking at everything that funnels people into depression. I lost some important people in my life to suicide and started hearing about all these amazing artists we're losing day after day. And then [the suicides of] Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington happened back to back. It was like, man, this is becoming an epidemic here. I felt that was the best thing to focus on, instead of working with one category, like addiction or suicide prevention. We've partnered with multiple companies so we can bring awareness to all these categories, from depression to addiction to bullying, PTSD, suicide prevention.
And not only do we want to raise money on a global level to give to these experts so they can do their jobs, but we want The Scars Foundation to start empowering people and becoming a voice through events and concerts and speaking [events] and everything else that we're going to create so people who suffer with these silent kind of illnesses that are hard to identify, like depression, mental illness, can start being empowered.
We all have these scars, we all have these imperfections that embarrass us or make us feel unworthy, and things like that. And that's okay. It's part of our DNA. It's a reminder of what we've survived, of what we have to struggle with. And I think the more we can give people a voice, the more we can inspire people to come forward and tell their stories, the more we can start chipping away at this and let people know this isn't something to be embarrassed about, this is something you should be proud of. Show your scars proudly and be an inspiration to other people to show theirs.
How did you go about setting up this foundation?
I came up with the core of it. I just told [my management] what I wanted to do, and I told them it was really important to me that we didn't just target one thing. And I think the best way to do that is to create a non-profit that can work with multiple companies. The biggest challenge was to find how we're going to develop this thing legally, that we have the right to just create the events, donations, the things that we want to do, and build our bank account to be able to issue a cheque to whomever we feel we want to work with that month.
So one month we're going to do an event based on suicide prevention or the next event is going to be based on addiction or to the point where if we see a family that is really struggling or in need of help, we can cut a cheque. We don't have to worry about all the red tape or legalities involved in it. We can just say, “Hey, you know what? We just want to do something specific to these people here.” That took some time. I got a lot of help from my management team. And I have a really great executive director on board named Naomi [Fabricant, of the Face the Music Foundation] that's very experienced in these kinds of things, and she brought in some experts in the medical field and professionals who work in specific categories we've targeted.
One of the foundation's partners is MusiCares, which provides healthcare assistance to musicians and members of the music industry in need. From your experience, do you feel musicians are at greater risk of mental health issues than some other populations?
No, I don't feel like they're at a greater risk. But I do feel that they're subject to go down that path because [they] live in a very tipped-upside-down kind of lifestyle that is subjected to alcohol and drugs and egos and a facade that's created out here that makes you feel bigger than life. And sometimes when you're next record doesn't do well... It happens a lot with artists, even when they're novelists or actors and actresses. But it doesn't mean that it invalidates the regular person who works at UPS either. Illnesses are illnesses and depression is depression, and it's a real thing. I think a while ago. people were more dismissive, like, “They've got to get a grip on their life, and they can handle that stuff better.” But sometimes I think it's more about our DNA and how we're wired and what we're built from. So those things we can't avoid, and we can't dismiss them as something that can be controlled. I think sometimes you just need a bit of help and people understanding that this is just who they are, and then they can understand how to balance this better.
But I certainly don't want to make it sound like musicians need this more than someone else does. It's just that I think that people are affected just as much by losing a family member, but I think that people who haven't lost a family member or have someone in their direct family who deals with this may be affected by some of these artists because it means something to them. Music is emotional; it touches people on an emotional level. And so when you have these amazing artists like Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston or Chris Cornell or [Alice In Chain's] Layne Staley or whoever it may be, their music meant something to people; it created the soundtrack to their life. And when we lose them to something so senseless and tragic I think it affects them on an emotional level.
I'm just pointing out that not only am I tired of losing personal friends, but I also want to see these artists survive. I want to see them go on to make more music. Some of them left us too soon when there was a lot more for them to give to us. And these gifts you have to cherish; you can't take them for granted. This is something that's a universal language, and music itself is a gift. And I, personally, would like to preserve that.
How successful or unsuccessful do you feel the American health care system has been in dealing with mental health issues?
I think they work hard. I think any doctor will tell you truthfully that they just don't know the answers sometimes. The human body is very complex. I don't know if it's made by God or made by aliens, but whoever made us didn't give us the blueprint for it, that's for sure. We've spent centuries trying to understand the human body and how to repair it and heal it when it's breaking. And I think they do their best, and it's important they continue to do their research because we're gaining a lot of ground. We're getting closer to curing cancer. There are a lot of things that we have now that we didn't have 20 years ago. My drummer [Shannon Larkin] lost his dad to cancer, and a year later a cure for his type of cancer came out. It's one of those things where we can't stop trying. We have to continue to do the research, and unfortunately these things cost money.
So that's why people like myself, my band, and other people around the world that create these types of non-profits to raise money... There's a lot of wasted money out there, let's put it that way, right? There's a lot of people who just throw their change in the trash can or put it in a jewelry jar and just focus on the dollar bills, and a lot of that change could turn into hundreds of thousands of dollars. So if we're just going to throw it away and be careless about it, why not be a little more mindful of it and put it in something that could make a difference? Because people might not think $10 could help do anything. But if you times that by a hundred thousand people, all of a sudden you have some real numbers. People could continue working in their laboratories and in their facilities to be able to help study these things and try to make it a little more comfortable and better with people who suffer with it.
How useful would something like The Scars Foundation have been to you growing up?
You know, tough question, because this is the struggle. When you're young and dealing with these kinds of things, like anger and illnesses and stuff that you don't quite understand, you can't be told anything at a certain age, right? We all go through that stage: “You don't understand!” That kind of thing. So it's hard to say. But, again, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't have these things. Because there are a lot of people out there who just suffer tremendously and they want the help. They just don't know how to get it or they don't know how to ask for it.
And so we're just taking a different approach. Yes, one side of it is to try to raise money. If you want to contribute in that way, that's great. Your donations are gratefully welcomed. But at the same time we're going to create events. I speak a lot at high schools. Because if we can make The Scars Foundation a voice, a place where people can come to and we can help empower them and we can reassure them, like... Look, we're all messed up, we all have our thing, and it doesn't mean that mine or yours is any worse than each other's. It just means identifying and understanding that you're not unique in that way. But these things that make you feel this way are unique, and it's a part of your path. It's a part of what helped you survive. And if you can just simply identify them as your battle wounds from life and you can show them loudly and proudly rather than hide them and suffer in silence then that's where we're going to start making a difference.
When people start talking about it, they'll inspire other people to talk about their stuff. And when we can surface it and it's not silent and it's not hidden, people can get the help that they need and maybe they'll start changing their perspective on this. And when those bad days hit, they'll know how to deal with it better rather than taking some severe actions that people have done over the years.
Listen to Godsmack's "Under Your Scars"