The Country Way

Jason DeShaw Shares Profound Story of Recovery

Jason DeShaw no sooner had disappeared behind the blue curtain when he was beckoned back onstage by the loud standing ovation from a packed auditorium. As if on cue, DeShaw strutted back out, grabbed his trusty acoustic guitar and launched into “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash.

The crowd went wild.

It was a jubilant finish to a concert that has become more about DeShaw’s inspirational message of hope for overcoming debilitating mental illness than the catchy tunes from this rising country music star.

This was no more evident than at the autograph table out front, where a long line of people snaked its way through the Helena Middle School auditorium. DeShaw flashed his infectious smile and signed posters, albums, shirts and anything else the crowd put before him.

A young boy patiently made his way forward, cradling a basketball the way a new mother holds her firstborn—one part eternal devotion and two parts protection. His basketball had seen better days. Faded to a light sandy-brown from its original orange hue, it was as worn as a fourth-generation Montana rancher’s saddle.

“I have what you have,” the boy said when he finally stood face to face with DeShaw. The boy promptly burst into tears; his mother gently caressed his back. “I just wanted to say thanks. I think I can do it. I can get through it, too,” he said.

The boy handed his basketball to DeShaw and asked him to sign it. DeShaw obliged, but not before setting down the ball, walking around to the front of the table and embracing the boy in a hug.

“You can,” DeShaw said, tipping the bill of his cowboy hat in a nod of reassurance.

* * *

There is hope and there is help.

That’s the message that DeShaw, a national award-winning mental health speaker and accomplished country musician, imparted throughout a 10-city Montana tour in the spring of 2015.

DeShaw, 33, grew up on the Hi-Line and his music resonates with Montana’s rural way of life. Since 2003, DeShaw has toured across 35 states, Canada and Europe singing his original country music—and quite a few Johnny Cash covers, too.

In 2010, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Since then he has become a leading advocate for mental health and addiction recovery as both a speaker and a singer. His presentation combines his moving story of recovery with original songs of hope.

Presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana and the Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery at Montana State University in Bozeman, the “Serenity in the Storm” tour stopped in Butte, Great Falls, Havre, Glasgow, Sidney, Miles City, Billings, Helena, Bozeman and Missoula. All of the shows were free and open to the public.

DeShaw also presented to several high school assemblies, extending his profound message to young audiences across the Big Sky state.

Montana has the worst suicide rate among teens in the nation. The tour intentionally kicked off in Butte, where in 2014 four teens committed suicide.

“Jason is a beacon of light in the dark world of mental illness,” said John Doran, senior director of public relations at BCBSMT. “Mental illness and suicide are all too real in Montana. We tend to put on this tough bravado and sweep it under the rug. ‘Cowboying up’ doesn’t work. This tour made a real difference in breaking the stigma of mental illness.”

The tour extended the journey DeShaw has been on since his diagnosis. Audiences are listening and he’s making a difference. In 2014, DeShaw received the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Lionel Aldridge Champions Award in Washington, D.C., which recognizes individuals with mental illness who reduce stigma by “exhibiting courage, leadership and service on behalf of all people living with mental illness.”

With his trademark wit, DeShaw told the audience in his acceptance speech, “I’d rather win this award than one of them Grammys.”

“Jason has an incredible musical gift that he combines with a powerful message of hope for personal recovery from mental illness and a broad victory over mental illness stigma,” said Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of NAMI, which also supported the tour.

Mental illness and addiction are an epidemic in Montana. Many people face their struggles alone, afraid to speak to others about their experiences. Open communication can have a positive effect on reducing the stigma and encouraging individuals who suffer from depression or other illnesses to seek help.

DeShaw’s authenticity makes it easier to feel and acknowledge those who struggle with mental illness as valued members of society. He aims for the heart, so that the mind will follow.

“I know what it feels like to go through hell with severe depression,” DeShaw said. “When we look at mental illness and addiction, we have to treat the cause more. A lot of our social problems stem from mental illness and addiction. My goal is to reach out to others who are looking for help and give them hope.”

While performing for the school in Fort Benton, DeShaw did just that. One student approached DeShaw afterward, saying it was the first time he’d ever felt hope that he could overcome his own depression.

“If we save just one life through this tour, then it will all be worth it,” DeShaw said.

* * *

After the show, DeShaw loaded up his black Chevy truck in preparation for the final shows on the tour. A dark bank of clouds rolled in overhead. He was visibly tired—and who wouldn’t be after sharing such a profoundly personal and emotional story with hundreds of others. He was nearly alone in the parking lot, but far from alone in this world.

Tired as he was, his quick wit didn’t falter.

“Well, I guess my groupies have called it a night.”

Nor did he lose the spark in his eyes.

“What a hell of an honor. Let’s do it again soon, huh? How about a day from now in Bozeman?”

And so it goes on the road with Jason DeShaw. You won’t be able to shake his clever, foot-tapping music or his chill-inducing voice. His message tugs at your heart strings.

Through compassion, true understanding will follow.