The SIMS Foundation was forged from a tragedy that rocked the Austin music community in 1995. Sims Ellison, a member of the band Pariah and beloved member of the local music community, died by suicide. From their grief, his father, Don Ellison, the founders of Austin Rehearsal Complex and others found a call to action — they realized they needed to make a change for the better in the Austin music community, to connect with struggling musicians. Thus, the SIMS Foundation was born, working to provide affordable mental health care and addiction recovery to as many in the industry as possible in the hopes of preventing similar losses.
“Back then, it was something really unique to Austin and revolutionary,” Leslie Sisson, musician and long-time client of SIMS, says. “Now, other cities are catching on and creating similar programs, but this is part of the reason so many musicians flock to Austin — they know they’ll be taken care of.”
Over the years, the SIMS Foundation has grown and reorganized to better assist Austin musicians and cover their families’ needs as well. Eight years ago, the foundation even expanded its programs and its scope to cover not only musicians but also those who work in the industry in any way, such as sound techs and bartenders at venues and their families.
Now, Patsy Dolan Bouressa heads the small team at the foundation as the executive director. Although she’s only been with the foundation for a little over three years, she’s seen and played a role in some of the bigger changes in the organization — one being the sheer amount of case management that the team takes on.
“Even if we have someone come to us with something seemingly small, we quickly help them get into therapy and stay active in their case from then on,” Bouressa explains. “Essentially, from that first call, we wrap around the client and make sure they are getting their needs met and have continuity of service.”
Finding the right therapist or treatment is never easy for anyone, so having the team there to look after them every step of the way helps take away that barrier to true help.
“We went from being the place you called when in a crisis to being the place you also went to learn the tools to avoid those crises,” Bouressa says. “And with that switch, our client numbers spiked. We’re able to reach and help so many more people now.”
More recently, they’ve crafted programs dedicated to training venue staff and others on subjects such as what treatment looks like and how it’s different for everyone, how to handle crises like overdoses, and how to handle sexual harassment and trauma.
“It’s always interesting when you see an audience getting confused, because you’re talking about a heroin overdose like it’s ‘whatever,’” Bouressa explains. “But that’s the thing, because it is whatever. It’s just part of a disease, and we need to have these conversations to help stop it.”
Since 2015, the SIMS Foundation has helped over 3,000 clients and spent over 4,000 hours in case management alone. But the amount that this foundation has impacted the music community is not something easily put into a figure. It’s something seen in the fervent way that musicians talk about the foundation — and it’s something seen all over town in the SIMS benefit shows organized and led by musicians themselves, refusing to take anything but a small cut of the revenue and instead dedicating it to the foundation.
“Most of our money comes from benefit events and concerts,” Bouressa says. “The community is very tight knit here in Austin.”
Rightfully so, Bouressa and her team have become champions to those clients they work with. As mental health advocates, they work closely with the music community, being on call for emergencies and simply being there when it counts.
In March of last year, Greg Enlow, a big name in the music scene, was lost to suicide. Some of his friends decided to throw a concert in his honor that would give all proceeds to the SIMS Foundation. Without hesitation, Bouressa went to the event just to share a few words with the community that was still grieving.
“She didn’t have to do that, you know? But she came just to share a few words with us,” Sisson says. “It’s things like that. They make sure we know that they really care, that they’re there in the trenches with us.”
So many of those in the music industry here in Austin have stories about how SIMS has helped them. One such client is Tony Trevino, who first found SIMS on his road to recovery from addiction.
“Like a lot of musicians, my idols growing up were musicians that had died of overdose,” Trevino explains. “So, in my convoluted thinking, I had to be strung out to actually be a real musician.”
Trevino says that he can sum up that period of his life through a few numbers. It was in the span of 10 years that he went to six treatment facilities, had four overdoses, was arrested three times on drug and alcohol-related charges and was admitted to two mental institutions.
“They say addiction will lead to one of three places: jail, mental institutions or death,” Trevino says. “But for me, it led to all three. It killed my music career and took everything from me, several times.”
For the final time that he got and stayed clean, it was through SIMS, who paid for his treatment center and sober living. Now he’s training as an MMA fighter at the top gym in the area while simultaneously helping those like him who are now in recovery and getting himself back into playing music professionally.
“I owe my recovery to a lot of people,” Trevino says. “But at the top of that list is Patsy and the SIMS Foundation. I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for them. I’m constantly flabbergasted with how happy I am now and what I’ve achieved since recovery.”
The SIMS Foundation works with a diverse and vast network of mental health practitioners around the area to provide care at little to no cost. For many musicians, not having insurance means they will be unable to afford mental health care for anything from anxiety to addiction, but SIMS works hard to ensure the care of each client.
Leslie Sisson has been working with the SIMS Foundation as a client for almost 10 years. When she first started seeing a therapist to process the unexpected loss of her mother, SIMS helped her find the right person. Then, when Sisson went through the nightmarish experience involving her violent kidnapping, the SIMS Foundation was still there.
At first, the state appointed her to a therapist to help her with her post-traumatic stress disorder. But when that ran out, SIMS helped her to find the perfect trauma therapist, and she’s been working with her ever since. Even once Sisson began receiving insurance from her day job, SIMS made sure that she would still be able to see that same therapist.
“I was worried this meant I’d no longer be able to see her since she doesn’t take insurance,” Sisson said. “She’s talked me off so many ledges. I don’t know what would have happened if I had to stop seeing her.”
Musicians are some of the most heavily hit when it comes to depression, anxiety and addiction. Not having the ability to get help for these issues only adds to the stress that created them in the first place.
“Working to make a living as a musician isn’t glamorous,” Sisson says. “Some people do it because it’s all they know how to do, or, like me, it’s the only thing that gives them catharsis. But it’s rough, and it’s not easy on anyone.”
Sisson says that with every benefit show she plays, she rarely ever takes a cut of the proceeds. She doesn’t think any musician does unless it’s a small one, because they want to give back as much as they can.
“They’ve done so much for us. It’s been hard not being able to play those shows during COVID. I would give them a million dollars and more if I could,” Sisson says. “I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for SIMS, I wouldn’t be here today. And I’m forever grateful.”