Great Big Sea‘s Séan McCann credits a guitar with saving his life.
Having suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a priest at age 15, McCann grew up to find fame with Newfoundland and Labrador’s biggest hit-makers, but he drank heavily to avoid coping with what had happened to him years earlier.
His guitar, playfully dubbed “Old Brown,” was the key to recovery, he says, allowing him to express through song what he couldn’t say in words. Today, he’s six years sober.
“For me (Old Brown) was an antidote to loneliness,” McCann told Global News.
“When someone needs someone now, at four in the morning, when you’re desperate, this is a friend that’s there. Something that’s useful to you to break the cycle of despair.”
McCann was, in essence, the perfect ambassador for Guitars for Vets, a six-year-old program that provides basic guitars and beginner lessons to Canadian veterans struggling with mental illness, homelessness and addiction.
The program’s founder is Nova Scotia’s Jim Lowther. A veteran himself, Lowther was diagnosed with debilitating PTSD and had tried just about every form of therapy available before he dug an old guitar out of the back of his closet.
“It took me away from where I was, I drifted off for about 15 or 20 minutes,” he recalled.
“To me, it was unbelievable.”
An ongoing issue
The three most common mental health ailments in the military, according to a senior psychiatrist with the Canadian Forces, are depression, PTSD and substance abuse. Many military members suffer in silence, and the stigma of mental illness has been difficult to shake.
Suicide is also a serious ongoing problem. The Department of National Defence has confirmed that a total of 130 active members of the military have taken their own lives since 2010.
The military doesn’t know how many veterans have committed suicide in that same span, however. A new strategy recently unveiled by the federal government includes, among other things, a promise to begin tracking and reporting those numbers.
In the meantime, programs like Guitars for Vets are attempting to offer alternative therapies. Like McCann, Lowther said he found music hugely comforting during his darkest hours and quickly made it his mission to get used guitars into the hands of other struggling former servicemen and women.
WATCH: Global News pays a visit to Guitars for Vets
Volunteer instructors made sure everyone got introductory lessons, Lowther explained, and Guitars for Vets has now handed a musical lifeline to over 800 veterans and current military members — without spending much money in the process.
“We have a waiting list of probably another 100 or so,” Lowther noted, which is where McCann comes in.
This Friday night in Ottawa, the Great Big Sea alum will host an all-star benefit concert in support of the program. Performers are expected to include McCann himself, Sarah Harmer, Joel Plaskett and Jeremy Fisher, and tickets are being sold for $100 apiece. Each seat sold will provide enough money to purchase a guitar, and connect a veteran with someone who can teach them to play.
“I look at that as 750 lives saved,” McCann said. “It’ll be in the hands of the vets themselves, not in the higher power, not in DND and not in Veterans Affairs.”
According to Lowther, many veterans and still-serving soldiers have contacted him to tell their stories and express gratitude for their guitars. He’d eventually like to see a music centre open where veterans can experiment with other instruments and just come in to socialize and play music together.
McCann, for his part, said he hopes Friday’s concert is just the beginning.
“Who knows where it’ll end?” he said.
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
– With files from Mike Le Couteur and Arvin Joaquin