Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Both Sides Now

I remember it as if it were yesterday. After gently lowering the needle onto the spinning vinyl record, a brief prelude of static would give way to some of my favorite songs. I am one of the thousands who listened to Joni Mitchell’s 1969 album, Clouds, until the lyrics were seared in my memory forever. And none more than the last song on side two: Both Sides Now.

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Both Sides Now tugs at your soul and invites you to sing along. And sing along is what the crowd at the recent 2022 Newport Folk Festival did when Joni Mitchell took the stage for the first time since suffering a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015. A performance that has gone viral with over 1.3 million views on YouTube, Joni Mitchell’s recent rendition of Both Sides Now may be her best yet. The mental health lessons and wisdom abound.

1. On Perspective.I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down and still somehow / It’s cloud illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all.” These lyrics are made all the more poignant when we consider that Joni went from being one of the world’s greatest folk musicians to losing nearly all language and mobility capabilities following her aneurysm in 2015. One of psychotherapy’s essential components is the understanding that our vantage point will dramatically shape what we see and how we experience life. Developing perspective-taking capacities enables us to consider multiple views and helps us understand those who see the world through a different lens, and helps us understand ourselves as we grow and change.

2. On Trauma.But now they only block the sun / They rain and they snow on everyone / So many things I would have done / But clouds got in my way.” As the saying goes, ‘life is what happens as we are busy making other plans.’ Joni Mitchell certainly had plans other than a ruptured aneurysm in 2015. Traumatic events come in many forms, and in the case of mental health, we know that adverse childhood experiences and traumatic events throughout our lives increase risk for mental health problems. Traumatic experiences can hang like clouds in our lives and lead to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The good news is that we have evidence-based, trauma-informed care that can help people reclaim health.

3. On Recovery. “Oh, but now old friends, they’re acting strange / And they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed / Well something’s lost, but something’s gained In living every day.” Undoubtedly, the Joni Mitchell we saw at the Newport Folk Festival is different from the Joni Mitchell of the sixties and seventies. She has fought her way back to walking and talking – and singing. What she has lost and what she has gained took center stage last month. Mitchell models a recovery mindset focused on strengths and capabilities rather than deficits and pathologies. According to SAMHSA, these principles also define recovery from mental disorders and substance use disorders, which states that recovery is “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

4. On Vulnerability. “Tears and fears and feeling proud / To say, “I love you” right out loud / Dreams and schemes and circus crowds / I’ve looked at life that way.” Joni Mitchell’s performance made eminently clear that embracing our fears, frailty, and vulnerability can be our surest path to finding our strength. Consistent with Brene Brown’s work on daring to be vulnerable, Mitchell’s vulnerability was her strength, her superpower, in Newport. She inspired kindness and respect from the performers who joined her on stage, the thousands of spectators in the field, and the millions of observers online. Vulnerability as  strength begot kindness and respect, which gave birth to joy and connection.

5. On Hope. “Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels / The dizzy dancing way you feel / As every fairy tale comes real / I’ve looked at love that way.” Imagination, possibility, and dreams give rise to hope. According to iFred Founder Kathryn Goetzke, “Hope is a positive feeling and inspired action. It is not a wish. Hope is a proven strategy that impacts all life outcomes.” Hope is the bedrock of mental health and wellbeing. It protects our mental health, and conversely, hopelessness is a known risk factor for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Some studies find that hopelessness, but not depression, predicts suicide in both clinical and community groups.

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now / From win and lose, and still somehow / It’s life’s illusions I recall / I really don’t know life at all.” It’s true. There is so much I don’t know about life. But one thing I do know is that I will watch Joni Mitchell’s Newport Folk Festival version of this classic tune again and again, and when I do, I will sing along with gusto. I will find inspiration in perspective, trauma, recovery, vulnerability, and hope. And it will be good for my mental health.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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