Band makes tracks through singer's tears

In many ways, Justin Furstenfeld of Blue October is one of the lucky ones.

In 1997 he spent time in an in-patient treatment center for mental illness.

Since then he's used his struggle as a foundation for the band's songs, which often deal with depression and pain.

That very real pain helped make Blue October's songs "Hate Me" and "Into the Ocean" radio hits, giving their 2006 album more mainstream attention (and a platinum record) than they'd ever received before. It's also made the Texas rockers, in a sense, spokesmen for the kind of illness that Justin Furstenfeld, the band's vocalist, has been so public about.

The band plays Portland's Roseland Theater on Wednesday night.

"We just want to make it known that it's OK to talk about it at the dinner table with your family," said Jeremy Furstenfeld, Justin's older brother and the band's drummer. "They're not issues that you need to be afraid of and be scared of. Hopefully after hearing some of our songs, people go, 'Oh, well cool, he's been there, I'm not so alone.' "

Depression at one level or another affects almost 21 million U.S. adults every year, and major depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Yet as common as it is, the illness can still carry a stigma.

A long list of artists down the centuries have been affected in some way by depression (in recent decades Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, certainly; Britney Spears, perhaps). That has long sparked a debate, still inconclusive, about whether depression and creativity are linked.

A 2005 article in Psychiatric Times, for example, noted that even Aristotle linked creativity and psychopathology, although some psychologists instead associate creativity with mental health.

That article surveyed the research and concluded that some traits of creativity and mental illness appear to overlap -- but not to the point of pathology. And, the piece concluded, treatment for mental illness, done right, shouldn't affect an artist's creativity.

For Blue October, though, at least the lyrical content of their songs has been deeply influenced by Justin's fight.

"Someone asked me earlier about 'Into the Ocean,' " Jeremy Furstenfeld said.

The song's music sounds cheery, the person noted, but the lyrics are far darker.

"It's just kind of a roller coaster of a ride," Jeremy Furstenfeld added. "We just try to let everyone out there know it's OK to be depressed. It's OK to have these issues. You can still be happy."

Nevertheless, even with the younger Furstenfeld seeking help and the band both grateful and happy with its success, it's doubtful Blue October will suddenly turn sunny.

"No matter how happy you are, there are some things that pull you back down. Depression is one of them," Jeremy Furstenfeld said. "You grow through that."

Luciana Lopez: 503-412-7034; lucianalopez@news.oregonian.com