Music gave Robb Nash a second chance at life — and he's using it to reach teens at risk of depression, bullying and suicide.
At 17, the Manitoba musician was in a serious car crash that crushed his skull and left him with no signs of life.
He was ultimately resuscitated — and miraculously survived. But for more than a year after his accident, Nash says he suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts.
"I woke up from my coma and didn't know who I was. I didn't know who my parents were. I went through this very bitter time," he said. "I played every sport; I thought my life was playing sports. And now, here I am, 17 years old, and my mother has to bathe me again."
'We're not trying to change the world here, we're trying to create world-changers.' - Robb Nash, on his band's ultimate goal
Then one day, Nash had a frank conversation with a friend and decided he wanted to change his tune.
"I remember, I was done being angry. I remember I screamed at the sky. I wanted to do something that matters, I wanted my life to count," he said.
In Canada, suicide accounts for one in four deaths in young people between 15 and 24 years of age. But many young people won't open up to parents, teachers, social workers or counsellors.
Nash knows silence is deadly, so he decided to use his story — and his voice — to perform in places like schools, remote First Nations, and youth detention centres.
- 11% of Canadians aged 15-24 met criteria for depression
His band, the Robb Nash Project, is a charity. For the past six years, they've been travelling around in a donated bus, surviving on donations from supporters and sponsors. The band walked away from a record deal to be able to do this.
"As a band, we're not trying to change the world here, we're trying to create world-changers," he said during a recent concert in Winnipeg, held for Métis children in the care of Manitoba's child-welfare system.
"If we can inspire these people to take their stories, take their lives, and turn that around, think of the impact that could have."
Nash's songs are about tough subjects, such as bullying, addiction and self-harm.
"Suicide is not an escape from pain; you don't get to go party with Kurt Cobain. It's alone, it's dark, it's painful," he told the Winnipeg audience between songs. "This is how you win the battle: Just for today, I won't use. Just for today, I won't cut. Just for today, I will fight and stay alive."
At each concert, he tailors his message to the crowd.
"We don't come here today because we feel sorry for you guys," he told the Métis youth. "The amount of crazy stories in this room could impact this country in such a crazy way. That's why I do this.
"If you didn't grow up with the best parents … Whatever situation you've come from, there's strength inside of you that the person with perfect parents doesn't have. I promise you. I've seen it."
And the message seems to be getting through.
"The motivational speech he gives out is a good vibe and he just helps people so they overcome their demons," said Nick, a former kid in care who can't be fully identified because he's still connected to the child-welfare system.
Nick first heard Nash at a concert a few years ago and says the performance encouraged him to stay in school.
"I grew up with not having parents and structure, and I still overcame all that. I still graduated and I still overcame the violence that I've seen. If I can do it, anyone can do it," he says.
Jessica Edwards became a permanent ward of the child-welfare system when she was only three weeks old. "I've definitely struggled with mental illness in the past, depression and anxiety," she says.
Now 30, she's studying to be a social worker. But she says she still identifies with Nash's message of hope.
"You're not stuck in hell today; you can get out and move forward if you have a good team behind you … They should be that safety net to push you in the right direction," she says.
"I think [Nash] definitely is saving lives."
That's precisely why Billie Schibler arranged this concert. The former children's advocate for Manitoba now heads the Métis Child and Family Services Authority.
"Our young people are struggling with depression, anxiety, mental health issues," she says. "They're already struggling in life; let's give them something optimistic, of hope."
Schibler also invited the teens' biological families, foster parents, social workers and case workers to the Winnipeg concert, saying she wants to show them that they are part of a community and surrounded by help.
"It takes a village," she says. "Life is hard and it can come and kick you when you're not expecting it. We can't always be there to prevent that but we want to teach you and give you tools and messages of hope."
At many of his shows, Nash receives suicide notes from youth in the audience. He's collected 645 to date. He says they want him to read them, then destroy them — because they've changed their minds about killing themselves.
His right arm is covered in tattoos of more than 100 signatures from those suicide notes. Names like Nikki, Jacob, Kelsey and Evan. Permanent messages of hope in black and red.
"I know what that feels like, you feel alone … I want to show them, you're not alone. These are all people who have had those thoughts, and they're still here, and they're conquering the world around them," Nash says of his tattoos.
Nash knows he's just one voice, but he hopes his message will give teens the courage to speak out and use their stories to help others.
After all, he says, it's a matter of life and death.