This musician with bipolar disorder is using her art to talk all about mental health
Briana Wolf is 24 years old and has been passionate about music for most of her life. When she was in kindergarten, her teacher called her mother to let her know that she had unbelievable musical talent. However, just a couple short years later, she started exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder. Both music and her mental health have been major influences in her life, which is exactly why she’s using her talent to change the way we think about mental illness.
When Briana was 8 years old, her mother noticed a change in her. “Something changed in me and I went from being a happy kid to a not so happy kid,” Briana told HelloGiggles.
But when she was 12, her symptoms only grew worse after the passing of a loved one. She dealt with misdiagnoses until she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “From that point on it was an uphill battle, because it’s very hard to find the right medications,” Briana told us. “I was 13, small and sensitive to medication, so I would get pretty extreme physical or emotional reactions to things, and sometimes wind up in the hospital. I struggled a lot as a teenager when other people in my town didn’t really have to deal with such serious issues; it was hard for me to fit in.” Briana, who later went to college for music and theater, channeled her energy into writing songs every day. “I started studying other people’s songs obsessively and self-taught myself proper song structure and melody/lyrics,” she told HG. “. . . Every year I’ve got better.”
Her work became her outlet whenever she was struggling. “It started as a coping mechanism,” Briana, who’s based in New York City, said. “Whenever I was manic or depressed I would write a song instead of taking it out on the people I loved. At this point in my life, I’ve practiced writing so much, that writing music doesn’t have to be an outlet for mental illness anymore. It’s now a skill that I can use to create music. . . of course I will always have songs that I write when I need an outlet and am struggling with my disease, but now it doesn’t always have to be that. I think it’s part of maturing as a person, and growing as a writer.”
In fact, Briana thinks of her bipolar disorder as her “superpower” — especially her mania. “At this point in my life, when I am manic, it isn’t extreme enough to be a problem and I am able to use it to my benefit,” she told HG. “I can make social connections, I can write music, I can start creating ideas and plans for my future. . . I can think outside of the box and then once my mania is over, I can make a decision as to which ideas I should follow-up and act on and which I should forget about.”
However, when depression sinks in after her mania, she has to switch gears. “The most important thing I’ve found that helps me in all this is recognizing when an emotion is coming from a rational place or whether it is just the chemicals in my brain playing a trick on me,” she explained. “Once I realize that the feeling doesn’t have to do with anything going on around me, and therefore isn’t permanent, I can cope and not make any irrational choices until I get better.”
Through it all, Briana considers herself lucky for having led a privileged life. “I am white, I have no physical disabilities, I grew up in a nice neighborhood, I had parents who recognized mental illness as a disease and not a character flaw and who could afford to pay for my medical issues, and I had a genius mother who worked in a hospital, and was well versed in the medical fields,” she said. “Some people don’t have all of those things. If I grew up in a poorer neighborhood, with a different skin color and parents who didn’t understand what mental illness was, I would not be where I am right now.” Which is exactly why Briana is using her music to make a difference. “I believe it’s important for me, when speaking about my story, to acknowledge that others have it a lot worse than me,” she told us. “There are a lot of people struggling with mental illness who can’t get the help they need. I hope I can somehow change that.”
Her music has been featured on Amy Poehler Smart Girls and Mashable, and she’s since received a ton of positive feedback, with almost 2,500 likes on Facebook. “[I’ve heard] from a lot of people who use art as an outlet for their mental illness, or who are struggling,” she told HG. “. . . For me, I wouldn’t want to be a successful songwriter if I couldn’t also stand up for the issues I care about. It kind of goes hand in hand for me. I’ve always wanted to help people and make a difference somehow, and I knew I was good at music, so that was the only way I felt I could get to a level where I could make a difference.”
Briana’s biggest piece of advice for those who are struggling with their mental health is that they’re not alone. “One in four people deal with mental illness,” she told HG. “So next time you are in a room with a lot of people and you feel overwhelmed, just think: One in four of these people are learning to cope with mental illness, just like you, adults included.”
Additionally, she adds, it’s so important to reach out to loved ones for help. “You have people who love you and will support you,” she said. “Getting medical treatment for a mental illness doesn’t mean you are weak or a failure; it means that you have a disease and are getting the proper treatment for it like anyone else with any other disease. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”