Music, writing and mental health could be considered three very different paths in life. But for Pasadena’s Ken Bagnis, they all go back to the same creative energy.
Bagnis, who once fronted the four-piece hair metal band Pretty Vacant, is a practicing psychotherapist—and, as of this summer, a published author. His young adult novel “Mind Riot” was released in July.
“When I was in the band, I had this amazing outlet and I created with my friends, and we toured around the country and went on these adventures, and then it was a really easy transition to go into mental health,” the Ohio native explained, describing never having the same day twice or facing the same problems.
“And then the bands went away. … The thought of starting a new band felt absolutely exhausting, and I found a career that was really rewarding,” continued Bagnis, who is now the director of treatment for the ASC Treatment Group, and a licensed marriage and family therapist.
But with a longtime interest in writing and telling stories, he said he wanted to let that creativity out.
“It’s just been the most rewarding artistic outlet I’ve ever,” he started, pausing and specifying, “Like even more rewarding than the band and all that. I just love writing. I love building these worlds and these characters and having them interacting and giving them their personalities, and all the interesting humor and story that comes with it. I really enjoy it. Finally, somebody agreed with me and decided to release this book.”
Released by REUTS Publications, “Mind Riot” tells the story of Salem Scott, a high school student who intends to spend the summer after his junior year playing in his band. Instead, he winds up volunteering at a private mental institution, where he must face his own demons. When that results in him being kicked out of his band, he decides to form a new one with the people he’s met at his new job.
Bagnis said he was “a bit lost, like the character in the book,” when he first came to the Anne Sippi Clinics. He described learning clients’ interests and using creativity while working with them—including playing songs and holding music groups to bring everyone together.
“It’s about making connections with people and building relationships, and then you can start to do the work,” he explained. “That was just a great way, right off the bat, for me to get to know everybody. There are so many creative people here. It just taps into that, whether it’s art or music or poetry.”
That connection carried over into “Mind Riot,” which is his first published book but fifth overall. He said he wrote the other stories, including a graphic novel, for fun—though he may return to them, in the hopes of making them publishable. Having admittedly made mistakes in the process, he treats them like a learning experience.
“These are all things that I might polish up,” he said. “Now that I’ve got this publisher that I’ve got a great relationship with, I might do something with all of them now.”
In the meantime, Bagnis is at work on his next book, “Break,” which is previewed at the end of “Mind Riot.” Taking a different direction, he noted that “Break” is “darker but still a lot of fun.”
“That one is sort of like the opposite of ‘Mind Riot,’” he said. “‘Mind Riot’ is this kid on the outside looking in to a psychiatric facility and trying to fit in. In the next book, it’s about a teenager, a 17-year-old who has his first psychotic break, and he has these two very, very clear realities and (is) trying to make sense of it all.”
Having performed in rock bands since his youth in Ohio—including going on to sign with the LA independent label New Renaissance Records, recording music and touring the country as the vocalist of Pretty Vacant—music has long been a theme in his writing. Tying in his knowledge of mental health, however, is something new.
“I didn’t feel confident enough early on to delve into the mental health, because I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do it justice,” he pondered. “My main goal, especially with ‘Mind Riot’ and the next book, is that if I could do any kind of part in destigmatizing mental illness, I think that would be amazing. It’s a very lofty goal, but if I could do my part to help with that, that would be awesome.”
Upon “Mind Riot’s” release, it landed at No. 38 on Amazon’s Top 100 Teen and Young Adult Humorous Fiction list after its first week.
“That blew me away. I was shocked,” Bagnis said, incredulously. “There’s been such great interest, and people that are really connecting with the characters in the story. I think a lot of it does have to do with the mental health angle.
“People are struggling right now,” he continued, referring to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders. “Kids are struggling with not being able to be around their friends, with being isolated, being stuck at home. Their whole world has been turned upside down, and depression creeps in and anxiety creeps in, and I just think that mental health and mental health treatment is really on a lot more people’s radar right now.
“The book really has been resonating with people, and I’m amazingly grateful for that,” he added. “It’s not painful to read. It’s fun. You’ll laugh.”
For more information, visit kenbagnis.com.