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Denver Nonprofit Punk Rock Saves Lives Raises Mental Health Awareness Across the U.S.

Members of Punk Rock Saves Lives.
Members of Punk Rock Saves Lives. Courtesy Punk Rock Saves Lives
Rob Rushing, co-founder of three-year-old nonprofit Punk Rock Saves Lives, recalls the organization’s booth at a music festival in Pittsburgh this past summer, where he was handing out packets of Narcan, an over-the-counter medication used to reverse an opiate overdose. The festival's organizers hadn't supplied the event's EMTs with the drug, and when they saw it, their eyes widened with excitement.

“They were like, ‘Can we take some?'” Rushing says. “We’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s for.’”

As the weekend progressed, EMTs would drop by the Punk Rock Saves Lives table and throw up a number to signify the number of festival attendees who had gotten a shot of Narcan up the nose. By the end of the weekend, it was five — five people who might otherwise be dead. Punk rock saves lives. Literally.

“At the end of the day, if we can make those small differences, that’s unbelievable,” Rushing says.

Rushing was looking forward to a few weeks of downtime in December, but that still meant driving from Denver to Nashville to man a PRSL table at a punk-rock flea market. After that, he would drive home and then fly to Los Angeles for another event, Punk Rock & Paint Brushes.

The organization has become national in scope over the past few years. Rushing co-founded PRSL with his wife, Tina, after losing a job with another nonprofit he worked for. Because they had so much prior experience, it was easier to get boots on the ground quickly.

“We were lucky in some ways to have some kind of built-in infrastructure coming out of our old nonprofit that was based here in Denver — Love, Hope, Strength,” Rushing says. “I was with them for a good ten-plus years, and my wife was with them for a couple of years.”

The pandemic was a challenge, and Rushing says PRSL began a series of shows called “Positive Mental Attitude,” named after the concept introduced by self-help author Napoleon Hill and popularized by the punk band Bad Brains. From that, PRSL launched a mental health support group, and has seen its numbers grow as more people have needed help amid the stress of the pandemic.

“It was a really big deal during the pandemic for people to have a place to go and say what was ailing them,” he says. “Other punk rockers would chime in and just be there for each other. It was pretty rad.”

The mental health group allowed PRSL to grow during a time when everything was shut down, and it has since been invited to set up its booth at a variety of shows and festivals. The group does a lot through its booths, including bone marrow drives and providing mental health resources, Narcan and fentanyl test strips. “We want to get more fentanyl test strips into people’s hands,” Rushing says. “If you're using, at least test your stuff and make sure it’s what you think it is.”

Rushing grew up in the punk-rock scene, and the values he learned in that scene have steered him over the years. The band 7 Seconds taught him the ideas of standing up for your fellow man, being anti-racist and respecting women. Youth Brigade and Black Flag also gave him some of the ideals he tries to live by.

“Not everything was punk rock,” he says. “I grew up in south Georgia in the 1980s, so we were all about REM. But they are so DIY that I could argue REM is punk rock.”

Rushing says that he came to work in nonprofits after a friend died tragically at the age of 32 following a bout with the flu and an enlarged heart. The experience sent him reeling and looking for some way to do good in the world. Shortly thereafter, he discovered Love, Hope, Strength. And it was punk rock that guided him to the nonprofit. “There was a documentary about [Love, Hope, Strength] climbing Mt. Everest to raise money for cancer,” he recalls. “Mike Peters, from the Alarm, was my favorite singer growing up. There he is standing on top of a mountain, telling people to fight cancer.”

He adds that to work in nonprofits, one has to be compassionate. “We are pretty empathetic people,” Rushing says. “It builds on you if you aren’t careful.”

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