Mark Linkous, lead singer of the band Sparklehorse, committed suicide in 2010, which inspired the Richardsons of Mt. Airy to create "Box of Stars" to stimulate public awareness and discussion about the mental health disorders that have so often been shrouded in secrecy in the past.

Mark Linkous, lead singer of the band Sparklehorse, committed suicide in 2010, which inspired the Richardsons of Mt. Airy to create “Box of Stars” to stimulate public awareness and discussion about the mental health disorders that have so often been shrouded in secrecy in the past.

by Lou Mancinelli

At Box Of Stars (BOS), a Mt. Airy-based organization founded by two music producers, Ted and Jessica Richardson have found a new calling in using music as a vehicle for spreading awareness and opening up a new discussion about mental health issues.

What started in 2010 at their home as an idea to pay tribute to an artist who had grappled with mental health throughout his life and had just committed suicide has now grown into a full-time job. “It was really something we didn’t expect to do at first,” Ted said.

That many artists are afflicted with mental health issues may be a stereotyped notion, but that one in four adult Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH,) may be a fact less known.

The purpose of Box Of Stars is to promote awareness about mental disorders, reduce the stigma attached to it and save lives. They aim to do this through public awareness like national television ad campaigns, and through events like the “I Will Listen Day,” a June 3 concert hosted in collaboration with WXPN at Love Park.

What led the couple to follow through with and expand on their idea was the guidance of people like Geoff Botak, CEO at Friends Hospital, a facility that has provided psychiatric treatment for over 200 years, and the people at the Scattergood Foundation, whose purpose is to increase discussion about behavioral health. “Box” is a finalist for the 2014 Scattergood Foundation Innovation Award, an award it also won in 2013.

“They needed a vehicle like music … akin to Farm Aid or Live Aid … to open a new conversation about mental health,” Richardson said about discussions he and his wife had with Botak and others that led to the birth of Box Of Stars.

In 2010 when Sparklehorse songwriter Mark Linkous committed suicide, Jessica Richardson wanted a way to pay tribute to her favorite artist. She and Ted had many connections in the music industry through their work at their Cedar Street Studios in Port Richmond. They decided a tribute album featuring the work of other artists who have also wrestled with mental health issues would be a fine way to honor Linkous.

They started making calls and soon found producer Dave Fridmann, who had worked on many Sparklehorse albums as well as every Flaming Lips album and with many other artists.

It was discouraging at first but later turned into a transforming experience. Fridmann told Richardson, ‘What you’re doing is bigger than what we wanted to do,’ and he offered Richardson half of the album he’d already finished. That impetus made the project actually happen and led to the Richardsons raising $46,000 through an IndieGoGo Campaign. The album is currently being finished, and the Richardsons have since closed Cedar Street Studios to focus on BOS. Meanwhile, they continue to freelance at various studios.

In past generations mental health disorders were often hidden, but now they are discussed more openly. Furthermore, the public often looks up to performers as pillars of cool, so they might be able to make it cool to talk about mental health. This was the idea that led to the creation of Box of Stars.

“It makes sense that would be a place to start,” said Jessica, 38, about the relationship between connecting music to emotion and getting people to talk openly about their mental health issues.

“Music is a language that connects everybody. You may not think you have something in common with someone, but you may like the same music … It also puts a positive light on mental health.”

If through discussion or music, we can begin to understand the suffering that is common among us, bankers and artists, roofers and bureaucrats, lawyers and teachers, perhaps we can find ways to heal or manage the suffering.

One of the most recognizable faces in rock and roll today is Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. Coyne, along with Eric Slick, the 23-year-old drummer from Philadelphia band Dr. Dog, are quietly becoming spokespersons for mental health issues. The two were featured in a promotional video for the Box Of Stars IndieGoGo campaign.

What’s less recognizable is the fact that Slick, behind his sunglasses and cool commanding demeanor on stage, suffers from panic attacks and once froze onstage, causing the rest of Dr. Dog, a band that sells out Electric Factory-sized rooms from here to San Francisco, to wonder what was wrong with the wonder kid. After all, Slick had been performing in front of huge crowds with Adrian Belew, former Talking Heads and King Crimson guitarist, since he was 18.

Incorporated as a non-profit in late 2013, and founded and directed by the Richardsons, Box Of Stars is an organization that is just beginning to button its shirt.

While it will promote local bands and local awareness, the goal is to bring the message of awareness to an international level. It has a Board of Directors and is compiling an advisory board of individuals who have expertise and experience in behavioral health.

Married in 2008, the two have one child together, a daughter, Oona, who will be 4 in May. They are also raising Jessica’s children from a previous marriage, their daughter Elliot, 13, and son, Wilson, 15.

“We didn’t realize the amazingness of this community,” said Ted, 46. He said that when they moved to Mt. Airy last year, every time they walked out of the moving truck, there was someone new saying, “Hi; we’re you’re neighbors.”

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