The Heavy Metal Empathy of Diva Satanica

Nervosa vocalist discusses challenging the stigma of mental illness.

Posted Mar 10, 2021 |

“Dwelling in the darkness

Groping in the tunnel

Until the very end”

—From “Until The Very End” by Nervosa (featuring Guilherme Miranda)

What’s your vision of the ideal mental health provider? Do you think of Judd Hirsch as Dr. Berger from Ordinary People (1980)? Maybe Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos feels like a better fit. Or maybe the late Robin Williams as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997) feels like a therapist who would best help you.

 Barbara Ciravegna, used with permission
Source: Barbara Ciravegna, used with permission

Well, what about a screaming, raging, ass-kicking extreme metal singer? If that’s more to your liking, you might think of psychiatric nurse, Diva Satanica, former singer of Bloodhunter and the new singer of the extreme metal band Nervosa. Blabbermouth called Nervosa’s new album Perpetual Chaos (2021) “a brutish blend of scabrous thrash and ragged death,” and described Diva’s vocals as “charismatic snarls.”

OK, but how does being a successful extreme metal singer qualify anyone as a mental health practitioner? Aren’t metalheads dangerous, violent mistanthropes? Well, in contrast to what the stigma of heavy metal musicians and fans might imply, it looks like metalheads may actually be OK. Longitudinal research actually shows that '80s metalheads turned out to be well-adjusted adults. One study suggests that people into heavy music such as metal tend to show high levels of civic engagement. And for people who enjoy metal music, listening to extreme metal actually appears to reduce rather than increase stress.

In talking with Diva, it’s clear that she too unfortunately experienced the stigma of being a metalhead. And the stigma that metalheads face is similar to the bias facing people with mental illness – who are often assumed to be unstable and harmful to society. And what emerges is a heavy metal empathy that perhaps puts her in a unique position to help people who struggle with their mental health.

Diva knew that she was into heavy metal at a young age and soon realized that there was a social price to pay for being a metalhead. “There's a kind of stigma, it has to be like something wrong with you … If you just wear different clothes than everybody, you're just weird...,” Diva told me. “Sometimes, even for my parents, when I started listening to rock and roll and metal, I wanted to be dressed like the people that were playing music, and I really enjoy all that scene. So, they were not very happy with that decision. And when I started to dress black and stuff like that, it was like this girl, something's wrong with her. Something's happening to her.”

But for Diva, her connection to heavy metal felt like a healthy way to understand, process, and express her emotions. “I was very sad when I was a teenager and I had my own issues. And I was kind of angry with everything...,” Diva recalled. “But music really helped me because I find like, the way of just expressing my emotions, just with no words. And that's amazing.”

Many people describe the cathartic nature of heavy metal music and Diva wishes more people understood the adaptive value of listening to extreme music. “It's like therapy … a lot of endorphins, and amazing emotions just going out,” she said. “I think that people probably just are afraid of what they don't understand, of what they don't like. And that's, that's sad, you know, because if you don't know, something, just try to get more information, but don't judge. That's a very common mistake.”

What Diva began to notice is that her connection to heavy metal music fostered a growing sense of empathy. By being open to and exploring the intense emotion in the music, she experienced compassion rather than revulsion for her own intense feelings and the feelings of others. Further, Diva found a connection to the heavy metal community amongst people who similarly wanted to foster a more collective and empathic approach to the world. “I think that's very beautiful, you know, because you have that sense of community, of having that connection even without knowing the other person. And that’s very beautiful, indeed. Because I think, nowadays, we tend to be very alone, there's this individualism, like you need to just be on the top of everything and nothing else matters. It's like, I have to be the best and I have to have the best things and the best house, more money, everything that's like more and more and more. And we just forgot about the simple things...,” she explained. “Those things were that kind of things that made me really angry when I was a teenager because it was like that sense of justice when somebody was struggling and the others were just ‘I don't care.’ I never could understand that. You know, and for me, in the metal community, everybody cares about the other...”

And she found that people who struggled with mental health issues had developed a similar empathy. “And when I started to work with patients with mental health issues, I learned that they have this feeling of empathy,” Diva described. “And when they are suffering a lot, they really can feel when another person is suffering too. And they just don't judge because they know how bad that feels.”

Part of what Diva feels makes people who struggle with mental health issues more empathic is that they have been the subject of stigma. In contrast to how many people approach someone who has an illness such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes, people with mental illness are often met with a mixture of disbelief, scorn and avoidance. “When you're struggling with something, especially with mental health issues that people just can’t see with their own eyes, you know it's not like a broken leg or something. People sometimes just don't believe you; they think that you're not good enough or you don't have all your intention in doing something,” Diva said. “And that's not true. I mean, especially people that are struggling probably will be more powerful than you because they have to struggle against all the bad feelings, just to do the thing that you do normally. And I think we should appreciate that.”

As a psychiatric nurse, Diva has tried to take her heavy metal empathy into her work with her patients. One of the main ways that she expresses her empathy is by focusing on listening more than on giving advice. “I think that just not trying to give advice all the time, you know, just listen. And if they want to remain silent, it's okay. That's a good thing to do sometimes — just staying in the same place, but without talking you know. Because sometimes you just need silence, to understand that the other person doesn't feel very good. And that they can be like that and that's not a problem. Because in society, we just have to be happy and talk to everybody and make the others think that we have the perfect life and so on...” Diva explained. “And it's something difficult in the beginning, but then they understand that that's true, they can trust you... when they just decide that they can trust you, that's amazing, because then it's when you can really help.”

Further, being part of the heavy metal community helped Diva recognized the power of community to foster empathy and reduce stigma. And as a psychiatric nurse, Diva finds that approaching her patients with a holistic understanding of their lives in a community context is optimal. “Establishing yourself in a neighborhood and just knowing everybody in the family of that person — that's amazing because you really understand that whole situation...,” Diva described. “And that’s very important. It's not only about medication, and biologics and stuff like that. It's much more than that. It's your own environment, your decisions, your personality. It's much more than the medical stuff.”

So, maybe the next time we are looking for a mental health provider and considering their qualifications — who knows? Maybe metalhead is something you would want to see on their resume?