Note: This article contains discussions of depression and suicide.
Neil Larocque is a husband, father, business owner, and a Berklee Online student. In 2020, he faced serious challenges to the first three of those ways he identified himself, when he was separated from his family for nine months during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. He says focusing on his guitar courses and lessons helped bring him a sense of normalcy and hope during a very dark time. Neil lives in Shenzhen with his wife Selena and three-year-old son, Alex and will be graduating with his bachelor’s degree in guitar from Berklee Online in the summer of 2021.
“Music was my saving grace,” says Neil. “I had really great courses to focus on with musical styles that I enjoy: groove, jazz, and blues. It gave me a big sense of accomplishment, a routine so that I knew what I had to do every day. Sometimes I’d do my work, and then do it again for fun because I really enjoyed it.”
Neil carved out a unique and global career for himself. A Harvard graduate originally from Canada, Neil first pursued music in Tokyo, then Beijing. There he founded a group called the Groove Collective, which was voted the best band in Beijing two years in a row by The Beijinger. Neil was performing onstage when he met Selena, who was looking up at him from the audience. Two years later, they married and started their own school, designed to prepare Chinese students to attend college in the US. They have even sent students to Berklee.
“We started our company out of a coffee shop about six years ago and within two years it just blew up,” he says. “We really hit a niche in a market that needed us and we built really good connections. People came to us in droves.”
A self-taught musician for 24 years, he quit the Groove Collective and enrolled at Berklee Online because he no longer had time to be in a band while running his company. He and Selena moved away from the thriving music scene in Beijing, and though the music scene is smaller in Shenzhen, he is often called on to play alongside American musicians who tour in the area. In 2019 he did a month-long residency with Derrick “Big” Walker, who was the former harmonica player and saxophone player for the Mike Bloomfield Band.
“That was the best musical experience of my life,” says Neil. “He knows how to put on a show and comes from the tradition that I grew up learning. Just to stand there beside him was an honor. But then we finished after playing 30 shows in a month.”
Burning the candle on both ends started to take its toll on Neil. He was working 12-hour days when he found out that one of his friends died by suicide. The combination of being overworked and in mourning left him despondent.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or find a suicide crisis line in your area.
“I literally just sat on my balcony doing nothing,” says Neil, who was also dealing with his parents’ divorce. “I didn’t have the motivation to get up. So I would sit there for four or five hours at a time thinking absolutely nothing, doing absolutely nothing. I didn’t even eat.”
Neil and Selena knew that he was clinically depressed, however, it was not easy to find mental health treatment in China. He therefore sought psychiatric and psychological care in Thailand, where he got the help that he needed and his depression started to lift. Mental illness has been historically stigmatized in China, though the pandemic has catalyzed the expansion of treatment options. However, it was not available to Neil when he needed it.
“I went to Thailand to get proper medical treatments because they don’t have that in China,” he says. “Depression is basically seen as you just don’t have motivation. You don’t have drive.”
He got to the point where he was ready to return to his family, except the virus had forced China into complete lockdown. The borders closed and Neil could not get back home. He was forced to go to Hong Kong, where he waited in a hotel until his visa ran out four months later. Even then, he was barred from entering Shenzhen. He had no other option but to fly back to his home country of Canada, where he waited out the virus for another four months. He was away from his family for a total of nine months. He said that the only thing that kept his spirits up was loading up on his courses and improving on guitar.
“I really invested myself in a lot of Berklee courses and got to work with Scott Tarulli,” says Neil. “Scott’s always been there and we just have the same sense of humor and the same approach to teaching. There’s a really good respect between us. He was kind of like my family. I’d see him online three times a week and that’s what really forced me out of the funk of clinical depression and anxiety.”
Finally, Neil was able to book a plane ticket out of Toronto back to Shenzhen. It hit him how much time had passed when he reunited with Selena and Alex, because Alex was two the last time he saw him, and now he was three. He had been gone so long that Alex forgot how to speak English, because Neil is the only person in his life who speaks English to him, and conversations via telephone and computer were not enough to keep his bilingual language skills sharp.
Neil and Selena are working fewer hours now. Unfortunately when the pandemic hit, they lost most of their students, but Neil is okay with that so he can spend more time on his music and with his family. The virus is under control in Shenzhen, so he is able to teach and perform again in-person. In August 2021, Neil and his family will be moving to New York where Selena will start her master’s program in International Education Development at Columbia Teachers College. Whatever happens going forward, Neil knows that he wants to find a balance between music, teaching, and his family.
After talking about his tumultuous year, Neil says, “I don’t mind sharing because I think a lot of people choose to box it up, which is actually much worse because it comes out in different ways. So I’m fairly open about it because I think if you want to be helpful to the people around you and care about yourself, it’s really important to deal with those things.”