You Rock Foundation Counteracts Message of Stars’ Suicides

By Ellen Eldridge 07/23/17

Penola agrees that the musicians who wrote the songs he and his peers connected to died of suicide more often than earlier generations’ idols did.

Joseph Penola of You Rock holding a sign to share his story.
Healing begins with sharing. Photo via Twitter

Trigger warning: The following story discusses suicide, the stigma surrounding it and potentially triggering links. If you feel you are at risk and need help, skip the story and get help now. Options include: Calling the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255); calling 911; and calling a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you.

Joe Penola was 16 when his father veered off the road, crashed and died. Losing his father magnified the funhouse mirror he saw himself in and turned up the volume on looping self-talk that convinced him he was worthless.

He found his voice when he heard Nine Inch Nails’ song "Mr. Self Destruct." Music flooded the emptiness when Penola filled his chest with vibrating air, resonating against the lyrics. But he continued to battle depression and addiction.

He survived two suicide attempts before his 25th birthday.

Penola found himself in a self-expression and leadership program in which he was encouraged to create a community project. Turning his focus toward helping others started him on the path to healing himself. His project became the You Rock Foundation in 2014.

Rock star idols whose music affects fans on a visceral level speak candidly about that connection. In simple, studio sessions, the singer steps down from the pedestal fans put him on and he speaks directly to his followers about the struggles he continues to battle.

“If I had heard this when I was a teenager, you better believe I would have opened up sooner,” Penola said. “They are talking about suicide attempts, depression and substance abuse. The stuff that needs to be talked about and rarely is.”

And as much as that connection boosts people, alleviates painful feelings, and lets listeners know they aren’t alone, a singer’s suicide devastates. Hours after news broke that Linkin Park’s frontman killed himself, Penola told his boss he had to take the rest of the day off.

“I’ve been listening to the songs off Hybrid Theory and they’ll gut me the same way they did when I was a teenager. “Crawling” is a beautiful and insightful song about the pain of someone who’s dealing with depression,” Penola said.

Chester Bennington performing at a 2011 Bangkok concert.

Penola tried to reach Chester Bennington, but doubts his interview request ever made it to the singer whose addiction and mental health issues were widely reported. He said none of the artists he asked to contribute to You Rock hesitated; they all immediately felt the value in the project.

The suicides of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell convey the exact opposite message of the You Rock videos. These artists’ acts subconsciously tell people they have no hope of making it through their struggles.

Fame, family, money, being married and having children are what most of us aspire to and we expect those things to fill the metaphorical holes we have. So when a rock star ends his life, the person out there who doesn’t have a successful career, a marriage or kids hears about it and wonders, “If they gave up how am I expected to fight?”

Penola believes this is partially what happened with Bennington because he and Cornell were close friends who’d performed together and shared similar struggles.

Bennington died on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday, just months after performing at the singer’s memorial in Los Angeles. He tweeted about the impact Cornell’s suicide had on him and of the power of Cornell’s voice and lyrics: Your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped up into one…I’d like to think you were saying goodbye in your own way. I can’t imagine a world without you in it.

Chris Cornell on stage at a 2013 Toronto concert.

“I have to be honest; some of the guys we’ve interviewed — if Corey (Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour) or Jonathan Davis (of Korn) ended their lives, I would have been exponentially more likely to try suicide again,” Penola said.

Penola quoted American author David Foster Wallace when he described the decision to complete suicide: the person suffering is standing on the top floor of a burning building, terrified of the fall but more frightened of the flames. He jumps not because he desires to die but because he fears burning alive.

That feeling of pulling back from the edge out of pure terror resonates with Penola, who lost a close friend earlier this year. Amy Bleuel and Penola both worked as mental health advocates and voices for millions living with mental illness. Bleuel started Project Semicolon much the same way Penola started You Rock. He is still grieving her March 23 suicide, feeling responsible because she had reached out to him many times with disturbingly dark texts and photos. Thoughts she couldn’t share with her husband and those closest to her landed in Penola’s lap. He said he had to ask her to seek professional help, cutting her off as a way of protecting himself from relapse.

Penola hopes to inspire others to keep going. (via Joe Penola)

“When I found out she died and it settled in, I felt immense amounts of guilt that I’d never before felt in my life,” Penola said.

Penola agrees that the musicians who wrote the songs he and his peers connected to died of suicide more often than earlier generations’ idols did. The most important question we can ask is, “Why?” and Penola believes part of that answer is that society has lost its ability to connect to each other outside of digital relationships, in which we don’t see each other’s eyes or hear the tension in each other’s voices. “It’s a massive decrease in empathy and a massive increase in fear,” Penola said. “We don’t understand each other.”

But as important as the question is, Penola prefers to use his time and energy as an example to others of how to keep going. “I believe there is a responsibility on society to recognize, engage and help.”

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Ellen Eldridge is a storyteller and news reporter focused on mental health care and addiction. She is the Digital Producer at Georgia Public Broadcasting and covers breaking news at AJC. Ellen can be found on Linkedin. You can also follow Ellen on Twitter.