'Music is my salvation': College radio helped a present-day mental health expert find stability

Jan 30, 2020

Karl Shallowhorn has made a name for himself as one of the region’s largest mental health advocates. Before he became the chair of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition, he spent many of his formative years at Buffalo State’s college radio station WBNY. Shallowhorn spoke with WBFO’s Nick Lippa about how music and WBNY helped him graduate after he received his bipolar disorder diagnosis.

Karl Shallowhorn sitting behind the mic in the WBNY studio
Credit WBFO

“When I was a college freshman, I had a psychotic episode. I ended up being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”

“I was looking to pursue a career in broadcasting, and of course this is the place that had the radio station. WBNY. And knowing the station and knowing that I really wanted to go into that field, this is the only place to go, and it really didn't take much for me to think about it.”

“So I'd already gone to school at UB and General Motors Institute, so I came here as a transfer student in the spring of '84.”

“Well at the time, of course, it billed itself as New Music Radio. Of course the '80s was all about new music in a lot of ways, but especially punk and New Wave, which is of course definitely something that was new in a lot of ways.”

“Before I went to college, I had no issues whatsoever. I would, like many students ... The drinking age was 18. So, I mean, we would drink, but aside from that, I had no issues. So my circumstances happened, I believe, as a result of being away from home, using illicit substances, drinking, and also the stress of school. It kind of came together in that perfect storm that really kind of, I hate to use the term, but put me over the edge.”

“So I had a co-occurring disorder with chemicals. So I dealt with two things, which can make it even more challenging to treat.”

“So I think about the times I really struggled back in those days, and I would use music as a therapeutic tool. And even now, so when I'm stressed out or when I really need to unwind, I'll listen to music. So for me, back then it was a kind of thing where ... I mean, mind you, I was dealing with some types of, even at times psychoses. Which is kind of scary to think about, but it still helped me to manage and get through those times.”

"There was some inspirational music… Thinkman, which is a very unknown group led by Rupert Hine, who actually was a producer for Rush for a couple of their albums, had a song called Legend. I think one of the lyrics was, "Do you want to be a legend? Do you want to be someone who frees your mind?" So basically these songs helped inspire me when I really needed it."

“Sometimes I even get shivers or feeling up my spine when a certain song comes on, it feels almost electrifying with certain music, when I'm really in that moment. When I recently heard that Neil Peart had died from Rush, I remember driving home that day in shock and one of my favorite songs came on. And I literally had felt a shiver up my spine because it was so profound.”

“I have the saying that I say, "Music is my salvation." So for me music is, in so many ways, it's spiritual. It's motivational. It's heartfelt. So music is the core.”

“So I've been clean for 32 years. January 17th, 1988 is, as we say, my clean date and pretty proud of that. But that was the thing that was my catalyst to improving my mental health, improving my capacity to work hold a job and get married, have kids. And have the life I have now. I'm even teaching a class on addiction at Daemen College. So go figure."

“Well, I'll be the first to say that WBNY is the reason why I graduated from college. I was a broadcasting major and despite the fact that I was actually even going in and out of mental hospitals, I was at ECMC, Buffalo General at the time. The radio station was a place I knew I'd come back to and helped me to stay in college. I took I think some incomplete courses and it took me a few years. So overall it took me seven years to graduate from college, which of course nowadays isn't all that uncommon. But even though it took me three years to finish here, I kept coming back. But much of it was because of the station. So I think about WBNY as being the place that really, my friends were here as well. I had friends here that I knew were supportive and it was just a place where I felt I belonged.”