Joe Trohman: “Mental illness isn't a problem. The problem is the shame, the lack of information and the lack of teaching”

As part of Mental Health Awareness month and beyond, Guitar World is hosting a series of interviews and features with artists addressing and raising awareness around themes of mental health, particularly as they relate to musicians.

When tuning in to Joe Trohman’s mental health podcast, I Hate Myself, listeners by now know to prepare for irreverence in the midst of serious conversations about depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide, and other mental health conditions.

Trohman, best known as guitarist for Fall Out Boy and The Damned Things, discusses dark topics with guests, but his self-deprecation and ability to wisecrack in the midst of serious discourse come from a deeply personal place: depression that began in childhood, therapy since age 10, and three suicide attempts.

I Hate Myself isn’t so much a flippant title as it is a personal reflection, and Trohman hopes the podcast will help educate, offer support, and break the stigma that surrounds mental health.

You began therapy at the same age you began playing guitar. Coincidence or connection?

“Probably connection. It’s so trope-y and clichéd to say that music is therapy, but it’s true. I played music before then, but in a forced way: my mother put me in piano lessons, and in the school band I played viola and trombone.

“This was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and I was into Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and The Jesus Lizard.

“Their music was on the radio, it was angst-y, emotional, and guitar-based, and I was drawn to it and wanted to do that. That it happened at the same time I started going to therapy, while coincidental, is not unrelated.”

Has depression ever stifled your creativity or your love of playing guitar?

“Without a doubt. Depression is such an odd thing. Sometimes it can drive creativity, but at other times it’s incredibly tough.

“First of all, I’m always depressed. I feel good right now because I have a hit on it, but when it spirals out of control – if I forget to take my medication, or just feel exposed or vulnerable – I lose my confidence and there’s no way I can pick up a guitar. Anything I have learned about my craft goes out the window, and I’m stuck in a feedback loop of self-hatred.

“With 30 years of therapy, I have tools to figure out how to work through those scenarios and let the logical side of my brain take over the irrational side. Sometimes I can get through it in a day, and sometimes it takes months.

“I’m writing a book, and I’ve been reflecting a lot about how early on in Fall Out Boy, I was a black cloud. I was going from teenager to young adult, dealing with the music industry and a major label, roles in the band were shifting, and I was trying to find some kind of creative identity.

“Instead of knowing how to express that – because what 19-year-old does? – I was grumpy and depressed, and it sucked for everybody. During the pandemic, we held a meeting and I apologized for those times. I regret that it happened, but I think it came from being young and not knowing how to manage my feelings.”

You were 10 years into therapy at that point and still struggling.

“Yes, but I was 19 and in my own head and ‘Why isn’t anyone seeing and addressing how I feel?’ rather than looking outside of myself and seeing that I was making everyone else feel terrible and that I needed to clean up my act.

“But that’s a hard thing to ask of a teenager, even with all the therapy I had. I had some foundation, it helped me, it kept me from killing myself, so it was good, but it takes a long time to develop the tools and awareness, and that comes with age and experience.

“Now, no matter how depressed I am, it’s much easier for me to step back, not put it on the guys, and just let it be my problem. But it’s hard to do. It's hard not to just vomit your feelings when you have a lot of feelings, and you like to talk about them and make other people feel them.”

What made this the right time for a podcast?

“I’ve always been open, and so I’ve never had a problem talking about my depression and struggles. For a moment it felt disingenuous to do a podcast, because everybody has one, but I enjoy it. You learn a lot, can teach a lot, it’s cathartic, and it can be mutually beneficial.

“The timing: Covid, lockdowns, coming out of the pandemic, the political landscape, the murder of George Floyd, anti-Semitism, which I have experienced as a Jewish person – this is the time we are all living in. There is a general depressive malaise, and I thought it was time to try to get it out in some way, shape, or form. A podcast seemed the right place to do it.

“When you live alone with this stuff, which is very easy to do as a depressive, you can’t find solace. I have a wonderful family, my wife and two young daughters, my bands, and my career.

“I’m still in Fall Out Boy, very much so, but I have also been doing stuff in television and comic books, and I’m working on a book, so there is a lot of cool stuff going on in my life. But these horrible, invasive thoughts come with major clinical depression.

“Therapy is very helpful, of course, but it’s not available to everyone – many people cannot afford it because it is so expensive, and so when you talk with someone else who has those same feelings, you don’t feel so alone all the time.

“Honestly, I don’t have a great deal of self-esteem, but I do know, logically, that I’m in a big band, and that means something to people. When Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell and others end their lives, people think, ‘Why? They had everything.’

Joe Trohman: “Mental illness isn't a problem. The problem is the shame, the lack of information and the lack of teaching”

“Well, that’s depression, and depression is not logic. It’s chemical, it’s a lack of serotonin, there’s a lot going on. I’m not an expert, I have no PhD, but I have a lot of real-life experience with it, and as a guy who has experienced success, for me to talk about it on a podcast I hope may be helpful to people, to teenagers feeling forlorn and thinking that this only happens to them. I just don’t want people to feel so alone, because I know that feeling.

“Even right now, talking about it, I’m feeling it. It’s hard, but it’s manageable. It’s workable, but it’s a lifetime of work. It never necessarily goes away away, but I want people to know that there are ways around it. It doesn’t have to end in suicide. It doesn’t have to end horribly.

“I hope the podcast can provide some kind of support system, bring awareness, and help de-stigmatize the important conversations we all need to have, but that many people still consider taboo.”

I Hate Myself is unscripted, with no advance discussions. Does that mean anything goes?

“Nothing's off-limits for me, but I try to be sensitive. I make it very clear at the top of the interview that if there's anything they're uncomfortable with that we talked about and they flag it, we'll cut it.

“I'm good about poking not at the wound, but around the wound, to see how sensitive it is. If it seems too sensitive, I remove my finger. What I try to do is think about who this person is, and tailor a basic topic surrounding depression to that person.”

Has anyone said something during an interview that affected your own mental health?

“There have been a couple of times when I’ve been in a really bad place, the interview is booked, and I just have to push my feelings aside and make space for other people. If I'm in the right headspace, I can easily do that, and I enjoy it. If I'm in the wrong headspace, I'm professional enough to set my feelings aside.

“I have a lot of empathy, so I know that if I go on in my worst mood possible, it's going to make the guest feel terrible, I'm going to feel worse, and that's not the right way to go about it.

“However, at the end of the day, it's a depression podcast, so showing up in the process is not a bad tone. It just needs to be addressed with irreverence and humor. I can't show up humorless just because I’m in my worst state of mind and feeling abysmal.

“But, again, I also get to talk about my experiences, and that is validating and relieving. So you walk away going, ‘That was hard, but I feel way better now, and I hope they do, too.’”

Are you pushing boundaries by approaching these topics with humor? Has anyone called you out?

“I think about it constantly because I’m concerned with hurting people in general. And now we live in this remarkably sensitive time where you can’t make a mistake without getting eviscerated for it. You can’t screw up at all.

“But I know this topic really well, and I think if you don't attach some levity to it, if you don't find the humor in it, you will surely succumb to the worst elements of depression.

“Again, this is part of my whole thing about trying to remove the layers of taboo and ‘You can't say that,’ ‘We don't want to talk about that,’ and ‘We don't want to feel that.’ Comedy is steeped in truth, so I'm going to do my best to try to make light out of something serious, but without devaluing how serious the situation is.”

Does terminology play a part in reinforcing or removing stigma? Is “mental health” a better descriptor than “mental illness”?

“I think so. If you have no mental health issues, or very little knowledge or experience, throwing around words like ‘bipolar,’ ‘schizophrenic,’ and ‘OCD’ is dangerous. So is calling women ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical,’ which you shouldn’t do anyway because it’s sexist and crappy.

“But we live in a time when we’re all policing each other’s language, and while, to a degree, there’s wonderful stuff coming out of that and we need to make people feel better, we also need to work on being a bit less sensitive, because we’re never going to get past certain things about terminology.

“We need to be better about understanding the gradients of the words we use. Context is everything, but right now, people are not interested in context. I don't think we need to jump down someone's throat if they misname or misappropriate something, but at the same time, some people are sick of teaching other people, and I understand why – because they've been doing it their whole lives and getting nowhere.

“‘Mental health’ is more positive than ‘mental illness’, but I’m proud to admit I’m mentally ill. I own it. It doesn’t make me defective. I think there’s a way to turn a perceived weakness into a strength; we just have done a really poor job of it.

“People are still uncomfortable about discussing therapy. They’re still wrapping their heads around the differences between schizophrenia, bipolar [disorder], and clinical depression, or the fact that someone can have one or all three and that there are gray areas.

“We need to do a better job of explaining these things, because we all probably know somebody, or somebodies, dealing with them. They are quite common and they are treatable. There are extremes, but there are extremes of everything that may make it harder for some people to function.

“Going back to the podcast, there’s a little bit of gentle teaching involved, like trying to explain these terms, these feelings, and how they relate to each other. I understand why it offends people.

“There’s certain stuff people say that's truly aberrant and disgusting, but there's some stuff… I wouldn't be offended if somebody came up to me with, ‘I really liked hearing you talk about your mental illness.’ I would say, ‘Thank you.’

“Calling it ‘mental illness’ isn't the problem. The problem is the shame, the lack of information, the lack of teaching, considering it a ‘no go’ zone in conversation: ‘This can only happen in private, behind closed doors.’

“It's a very naked and sensitive thing. There's so much shame. That’s what we have to remove, and we can only do that by approaching the subject.

“For people reading this who are going through it, I guarantee you that whatever gross, negative thing you feel, someone else reading this feels the exact same thing about themselves.

“If we can all just start putting that stuff out there a little more, I believe the world will be a better place. It’s great that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but it should be Mental Health Awareness Year. It should be Mental Health Awareness Always.”

In closing, who are your dream guests?

“Sarah Silverman would be wonderful, but she might run circles around me. Marty Friedman is one of my favorite guitar players, and I would like to talk to him about his career, about being one of the best metal guitarists ever, and about being Jewish in a metal world that wasn’t and isn’t very Jewish.”

Mental health resources