SIMS -Providing Mental Health and Substance-Abuse Recovery To Musicians In Austin Texas

Written by Lauren Jones

Founded in 1995, the Austin-based SIMS Foundation is the first musician-geared support service in the city, offering mental health and substance-abuse recovery aid to musicians, music industry professionals and their families. They also cover insurance premiums through local partnerships to reduce the financial burden of healthcare. With one in five Texans experiencing mental health issues each year, access to knowledgeable and affordable counselors, psychiatrists and substance abuse specialists has not only become a state-wide issue—Texas is ranked 46th in the country for mental health care accessibility, y’all—but one that crosses cultural and regional divides as well.

For Executive Director Heather Alden, who has been with SIMS for six years now, breaking down the stigmas surrounding mental health is just the beginning.

“We’re trying to change the way people talk about mental health and mental wellness. [For instance], you get a checkup for your blood pressure, then you should be checking on your mental health on a regular basis too,” she says. “It’s that important and affects every part of your body and every part of your life, and it deserves the attention that you would give your physical health as well.”

Over the last 25 to 30 years, an increasing number of communities are opening up to messages surrounding mental health but there’s still a long way to go.

Each year, SIMS helps 700 musicians gain access to mental health services through a curated network of 120 providers. While SIMS does have two licensed clinicians on-staff who assess new clients, they act more as case managers; coordinating services and focusing on a holistic approach toward overall health.

“Once they are connected with their therapist, our in-house counselors work very closely with their provider,” she says. “Through therapy, the provider may identify further issues the client may want to work on. Say they are drinking a 12-pack of beer a day. That provider would come to us and ask for substance-abuse services as well. Or, if they need to be on medication, then we coordinate with the psychiatrist and help pay for those things.”

Because the largest barrier to mental health services is affordability, SIMS looks at clients’ incomes and uses a sliding scale to calculate fees so most only pay about $5 per counseling session.

“Our provider network is really unique because these are people in the community that see it as their philanthropy to the music ecosystem and to our economy to take a reduced fee to work with SIMS.”

Another important aspect of SIMS is its holistic approach to mental wellness, which includes taking care of a client’s mental health, making sure they have a safe place to live, a purpose and a strong community, and educating each and every person that walks through the door.

“It’s essential to get psychoeducation upfront so you understand your options in terms of mental health, especially when it comes to substance abuse,” she says. “I think everyone has the assumption, and I did too before I started working here, that if you have issues with alcohol or drugs then you go to 30-day rehab. Well, that’s actually one of many types of services we have and we try to customize the service for the individual and where they’re at. We practice a harm-reduction type of approach where we want folks to work on their own issues in their own time.”

For Alden, it’s a daily occurrence to have “someone come to [SIMS] and they have been kicked out of their home, have no way of making music anymore and are on the last leg.”

For one musician, Gabe Vasquez, a handle of vodka a day was at the helm of his addiction and he had no way of getting out. After remembering a fellow musician talk about SIMS, he decided to reach out and within two hours of doing so, he was checked into a rehab facility in the Hill Country.

It’s musicians like Vasquez and others who share their stories publically that has led to an incredible shift.

“When I first started at SIMS, we wouldn’t even ask musicians to tell their own stories,” Alden recalls. “But, now every single person we ask to share says yes, and thus we have a collection of stories from people that have come from such a dark place and have made such a huge transformation. I would say that because we are working with a very vocal and visual group of people that stigma reduction has rippled out into the Austin community.”

In addition to sharing their stories locally, SIMS musicians have taken the message of mental wellness on the road.

“Many of our musician clients come back into town after being on tour and are saying how they are always talking about SIMS and their friends are always jealous they have something like this.”

As a leader in the Austin community, SIMS is all about empowering its Austin music family.

“Austin is a great place to do what we do,” Alden says. “There are only a few music cities that can truly call themselves music cities. If we’re going to use that brand, we need to support the people that are building that brand.”