Never Broken: How Singer-Songwriter Jewel Became a Mental Health Advocate

UPDATED: February 13, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 13, 2024
Singer songwriter Jewel standing in front of her guitars

The crowd cheered wildly as a giant red heart covered in glitter and gold moved confidently across The Masked Singer stage. No one knew whose sparkly red leggings were popping out from under the Queen of Hearts costume. But the voice inside commanded the room, transforming Sia’s “Bird Set Free” into a deeply emotional piece of art that brought tears to the judges’ eyes. The lyrics about having clipped wings, feeling broken and not having a voice belonged to someone else—yet seemed incredibly personal to the singer. The audience was visibly moved as raw anguish transmuted into confident self-awareness when she sang, “I don’t care if I sing off key, I find myself in this melody, I sing for love, I sing for me, I shout it out like a bird set free.”

Despite being famous enough to make it to that stage—with a slew of prestigious music awards under her belt and over 30 million albums sold worldwide—the singer under that mask had plenty of experience moving a crowd to tears with deeply vulnerable lyrics focused on finding the strength to change your life circumstances.

When Jewel revealed her identity as the winner of season six of the show, she told the audience how being anonymous reminded her of the early days of singing in coffee shops, where she could be her true self and not be judged by anything other than her voice.

“I’m not a cool person,” she admitted to the judges and audience. “I never have been, but I have a lot of heart. And that’s why I wanted to be the heart. And to be able to win on that meant the world to me.”

Things weren’t always easy for singer-songwriter Jewel

It’s not a stretch to say Jewel’s heart may be one of the most authentically beautiful things about her, but it’s her soul—and the souls of others—she has dedicated her life to understanding. While some believe the journey of a soul is predetermined, she believes it’s malleable, and we can change its course through the power of our thoughts and actions.

So, when she posed such a heady question in her 1995 breakout song, “Who Will Save Your Soul,” it was because she had been pondering the answers far too long for someone so young.

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It’s hard to imagine Jewel—full name Jewel Kilcher—wrote it when she was just 17, two years after leaving an unstable home environment, moving into her own cabin and then leaving Alaska to study operatic voice at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. After school, she moved to San Diego. When she refused a boss who propositioned her, she lost her job and began living in her car. When her car was stolen, she became homeless for a year, living in a van and singing in coffee shops to earn rent money. It was during this time that she was discovered by an agent and got her first record deal.

Jewel says she wrote the song as a way of taking accountability for her life—knowing that, even though she didn’t have a good upbringing or a support system to guide her, she had to decide: “Was I willing to be accountable for saving myself, or did somebody else owe me that? Did a religion owe me that? Who did owe me that?”

Jewel’s songwriting helped her write her own narrative

In times of great challenge, many people default to telling themselves stories that match their circumstances, but Jewel was able to stop herself from believing that her life course was predetermined because of the trauma she experienced. She started developing systems that allowed her to discover who she really was, ultimately building herself from the inside out rather than thinking things from the outside would fix her.

She says her songwriting was the soundtrack of her own life, becoming her diary of “grappling with these questions around nature versus nurture. How do I have agency? How do I not be a victim, even though I had a crappy childhood? What can I do about it? What am I willing to do about it? Because I didn’t have anybody willing to help me. And, for me, one of the most empowering moments of my life was realizing nobody’s coming for me.”

Though she could not have known it at the time, the song would ultimately change the course of her life and allow her to become a catalyst of change for others. And the powerful questions she learned to ask, as well as the tools she developed because of them, would provide a framework for the advocacy and education she would do outside her music.

How Jewel became a mental health advocate

She reflects on the fact that when she moved out of her house as a 15-year-old, even if she knew how to find a therapist, she wouldn’t have had the money for one. As a result, terms like “mental health,” “advocate” and “trauma” were not a part of her lexicon. Instead, she studied philosophers, poets and writers who, she says, “wrote during times of great upheaval—[who] fought through tremendous darkness—to fight for their humanity.” Reading helped her better understand the world, so when she came across a quote that said, “Happiness does not depend on who you are or what you have—it depends on what you think,” she began to understand the role thoughts have in changing our actions.

When she was homeless, it was remembering that quote that gave her the fortitude to say, “‘OK, I don’t have anything else. Can I turn my life around one thought at a time?’”

She decided to focus on shoplifting—one of her most painful behaviors—knowing that if she didn’t, she would likely end up in jail, becoming a statistic instead of a success story. After that, she worked on the root of her panic attacks and agoraphobia, asking more questions of herself along the way.

“I started to tackle them one pain point at a time,” she recalls, “and not only get in touch with what thoughts were driving that behavior, but now that I was aware of what thought it was, how could I change the behavior? Because, unless my behavior changed, it didn’t matter. Philosophy is dead unless we can figure out how to act on it.”

Jewel’s mental health organization: Inspiring Children Foundation

In 2002, after many years of putting what she learned to action, Jewel co-founded the Inspiring Children Foundation, which provides mental health programming to youth whose financial circumstances are a barrier to access. Today, the foundation serves more than 2,500 children in person and millions online, using sports, mentorship, mental health counseling and cognitive tools to help them succeed in their daily lives.

Because of her own experiences with poverty, she thought a lot about the obstacles and pathways to success when creating the foundation. She wanted something that would impact as many children as possible and not cost them anything to participate, with teachings and tools that could work with or without therapy, as she recognizes that therapy is a resource many aren’t able to access.

With the Association of American Medical Colleges reporting that more than 150 million people are living in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas, accessibility is a topic that needs to be discussed. This year, it’s estimated that the U.S. will be short between 14,280 and 31,109 psychiatrists, with psychologists, social workers and others in the mental health space being overextended.

This reality is one of the biggest reasons Jewel uses her platform to raise awareness of the obstacles so many children face when it comes to accessing the mental health resources they need, but she is quick to point out that the goal of life shouldn’t be avoiding pain. Choosing how we respond to pain, she says, is what’s most important.

“Sometimes, bad things happen,” she says. “So, how can I invest in myself to make sure I have enough skills and tools? That helps me know I’ll weather anything.”

The Inspiring Children Foundation gives Jewel immense pride

She says she loves seeing those “aha” moments when a kid really makes the connection in their brain, becoming sensitive to the fact that what they feel, think, act and who they surround themselves with matters. She sees the power that comes when they use this realization to make shifts in their lives that may seem small to others, but are, in many cases, life-altering.

“Watching them show up for themselves,” she says, “watching them show up for their own lives, is constantly awe-inspiring.”

She calls her kids “high-performing humans” and is so proud that, in the last five years, 100% of the students who take part in the foundation’s Leadership Development Program have earned college scholarships—74% of which are from Ivy League schools.

As a complement to the foundation, she launched the #NotAloneChallenge in 2022 to remind youth they’re not alone during the holidays and give them access to free mental health resources. In its first year, the challenge garnered 1.4 billion social media impressions and became one of the largest mental health campaigns in history. Auction items from celebrities like Cyndi Lauper, Billie Eilish, Kelly Clarkson and Deepak Chopra have brought in over $1.5 million—the proceeds from which support the foundation’s continued work.

Jewel’s mental health app: Innerworld

And after three years of beta-testing, Innerworld, the virtual mental health platform Jewel co-founded with Noah Robinson, MSc, launched in 2022 with the purpose of providing 24/7 access to free, anonymous peer-to-peer support via self-created avatars. While a premium subscription has a cost attached to it, Jewel offers teens aged 13-18 who sign up for the #NotAloneChallenge a free premium subscription. 

Once inside the virtual world, avatars are led by guides trained in Cognitive Behavioral Immersion (CBI), which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes as “a cognitive-behavioral skills program delivered by lay coaches in the metaverse through immersive virtual technology.” She is proud of the fact that Innerworld received a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct a randomized control trial at the University of Southern California to continue testing the effects of CBI on depression.

Though a new frontier in the mental health space, Innerworld is built on existing forms of therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). 

According to the online therapy service, Talkspace, CBT focuses on changing and improving the relationship between your thoughts and behaviors, while DBT uses mindfulness skills to help develop constructive thought patterns that help you learn how to validate yourself, others and the world.

“DBT and CBT tools have been around [for] decades,” she says. “They’ve been studied. We know they work, and you can teach them in group settings. Peers can teach one another in a safe environment by our trained guides, and so it’s kind of really picking up this space that exists between meditation and therapy, or along with them. It’s not exclusionary.”

Jewel: Never Broken

In addition to her work in the mental health space—she also created, a free mental health community available to anyone who needs it—Jewel is a two-time New York Times bestselling author, a poet, children’s book writer and jewelry designer for Songlines by Jewel. Last November, she released the 25th-anniversary edition of her multiplatinum album, Spirit.

With a music career spanning almost 30 years, it would be more than enough to point to the success Jewel has had as a singer, but it’s the success she has had with the things she built because of her music that bring her full circle to the moment she started asking herself the question that would change so many lives: Who will save your soul?

A question that would one day make her a Masked Singer, shimmering boldly under the stage lights as the embodiment of heart—the one constant that has served as a guiding force in her career, no matter how many circumstances threatened to break it along the way.

“I knew me leading with a lot of sincerity and heart would be really difficult, and it was,” she says, “but I’m glad that I did it, and it ended up being the right answer for me and my career. And I never had to live a lie in the public eye. I always got to be who I was.”

And though Jewel’s personal process has centered around asking questions and working to find the answers within, she doesn’t think it’s the job of any artist to tell people what to believe.

“I don’t think we can change people’s minds,” she says, “but I do think we can change people’s hearts. Or we can at least help them ask questions that are provocative enough that they might answer them for themselves.” 

This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of SUCCESS Magazine. Photography By Nick Onken.

Stefanie Ellis is a food and travel writer, as well as PR strategist and content creator for her own company. She has bylines in The Washington Post, BBC Travel, Eating Well, Saveur and more, and her clients are thought leaders in finance, branding, healthcare and the food and beverage space, with a former NBA player and duct work company thrown in for good measure. You can get in touch at or on Instagram @40somethingunicorn.