July 27, 2016 at 7:21 AM
Hours before the concert started, Demi Lovato's fans filled a room on the second floor of the venue. In this bar-turned-conference room, they would spend the next hour hearing stories about self-worth, emotional setbacks and fresh starts.
Lovato, who took her mental-health advocacy to the Democratic National Convention's stage Monday, has also taken it on tour with her.
She has invited the man who she credits with saving her life, a personal-development coach in Los Angeles, to travel the country with her to hold "wellness workshops" before every show to discuss mental-health issues with her fans.
For Lovato, it's deeply personal. The pop star was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010 after a physical altercation with a band member forced her to confront her lifelong mental illness. Since going through treatment, Lovato has been a leading voice in the growing movement of people "coming out" about their own mental health conditions. She talks honestly about the difficult process of recovery, and the work it takes every day to stay healthy. And she tries to encourage other young people who are struggling to speak out and seek help.
"Like millions of Americans, I am living with mental illness," she said before her convention performance. "But I am lucky. I had the resources and support to get treatment at a top facility. Unfortunately, too many Americans from all walks of life don't get help, whether they fear the stigma or cannot afford treatment."
Now she's brought that top facility on the road with her to expose her fans to the benefits of self-improvement. When fans register for the chance to participate, there's no guarantee Lovato will be there. Yet she almost always comes to listen.
On Tuesday evening, in the Budweiser Brew House at Verizon Center in Washington, she walked in with Nick and Joe Jonas in tow. (She is on tour with Nick.) The three stars waved to the squealing fans of mostly young women before taking a seat in low, leather, wing-back chairs in the front row. But, unlike most celebrity sightings, the nearly 150 fans did not whip out their iPhones to post photos on Instagram or to shoot off a series of Snapchats. They were told to turn off their phones, not just silence them. This was an opportunity to pause for an hour to reflect, to listen and to understand that emotional health issues are a universal experience.
Mike Bayer started his Southern California-based treatment center 10 years ago, which offers a hybrid of mental- and behavioral-health services. Through his CAST Centers, Bayer has coached celebrities such as Lovato through hard times, but he also has a broader operation that works with everyday people who are struggling. His goal is to teach them how to heal themselves when they're feeling lost or out of control — the kind of life tools, he says, that are not taught in school.
"I've always believed mental health should be mainstream — like overall, everyone struggles so why are things put in boxes?" Bayer said in an interview after the event.
On this night, Phil McIntyre, the Jonases and Lovato's manager, and Joe Jonas, now lead singer of the pop rock band DNCE, spoke to the crowd about their own insecurities. They spoke of hitting career roadblocks, crippling self-doubt and finding yourself again when life goes off course.
The conversation itself was off the record, but hearing these two men, who are both wildly successful in the entertainment industry, talk openly about their emotional struggles is exactly the point Bayer is trying to convey. By seeing Jonas or Lovato or anyone else speak so vulnerably and openly about mental health, it chips away at the shame that often accompanies emotions. It makes talking about feelings "cool."
"I think mental health can be like going to the gym," Bayer said, "and it can be sexy and fun."
Most people don't know where to go when they need help, which is why more than 60 percent of people with a mental illness won't seek treatment in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Bayer said it takes letting go of ego to admit to having an "illness," so he doesn't stress that term. Instead, he said, his focus is on simply helping people feel better about themselves. Then, it's no different than going to the gym to get in better physical shape or to the doctor to treat a physical sickness.
At the end of the workshop, Bayer encouraged the people in the room to take stock of their lives and to develop ways to live it without fear. When the stars left, the fans were encouraged to introduce themselves to a stranger to discuss what part of the presentation resonated with them.
He estimates that about half of the people who register for a chance to come to the event are just hoping for a chance to see Lovato up close, but he said what got them there is less important than the knowledge they leave with.
Some will approach the Cast Centers staff right after, others will reach out in the coming days and weeks asking for connections to local resources or simply thanking Bayer and his team for making them realize they were not being true to themselves or honest with their family.
Finding purpose and fulfillment is a constant evolution, and everyone struggles with it, Bayer said. But "when people are the best versions of themselves, it feels amazing."
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