To an outsider looking in, it may seem like singer Casey McQuillen has it all — she was a contestant on season 13 of American Idol, and went on to have a successful career in singing. Yet despite her success, she still struggles with a negative, nagging sense of self-doubt that she attributes to the bullying she endured in middle school.
These difficult early experiences left such a mark that she started an anti-bullying program. Listen as she shares stories about how her mental health intertwines with her music, the pain and pressure of being on a reality show, and how she uses her voice to advocate against bullying today.
Casey McQuillen, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, activist, and powerhouse vocalist, burst onto the scene on season 13 of “American Idol.” Since then, the rising star has organically accumulated tens of thousands of followers on social media and millions of views and streams of her music online, largely because her songs are authentic, intimate, and relatable.
Casey’s first single, “Beautiful,” debuted globally on ExtraTV in April 2019. Her debut album, “Skinny,” released in April 2022 from Plymouth Rock Recording, includes “In & Out,” a duet with singer-songwriter, Jon McLaughlin.
Throughout her career, Casey has dedicated herself to the causes of anti-bullying, body positivity, and mental health advocacy. Following “Idol,” she founded the You Matter Tour, an interactive, anti-bullying assembly show that she’s performed for 40,000+ students at over 100 middle and high schools in the U.S. and Europe. The tour has been recognized by the UN Foundation and GLAAD and featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show.
Casey has toured the U.S. and Europe headlining her own shows and supporting talented singer-songwriters, such as James Morrison, Stephen Kellogg, Kate Voegele, Tyler Hilton, Eric Hutchison, Clark Beckham, David Ryan Harris, and Nick Howard. Starting in May, Casey hit the road for concerts in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, and Nashville, and will return to the U.K. in early October for shows in Edinburgh, Newcastle upon Tyne, Liverpool, Leicester, and London. For more information, please visit Casey’s official website – www.listentocasey.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Casey McQuillan. Casey burst onto the scene, wowing judges and millions of viewers on season 13 of American Idol. Following Idol, Casey has dedicated herself to the causes of anti-bullying, body positivity and mental health advocacy. And today she’s going to share part of her story with us. Casey, welcome to the show.
Casey McQuillen: Hi thank you so much for having me. I am delighted to be here.
Gabe Howard: We’re going to be talking about anti-bullying. But I want to get this out of the way real, real quick. Many people feel that reality competitions like American Idol foster bullying in our society now. I was bullied in school and that was long before reality TV was ever heard of. But those opinions are out there now. Those opinions are also formed from watching the show on TV. We know that American Idol absolutely helped your career. And I’m just curious, is this criticism fair?
Casey McQuillen: I think that social media and reality shows. That argument I’ll give one grain of sand that I think to be true. The human mind is set up to know like 500 people max. Right. Your brain is designed to hear an opinion from somebody and think, well, this is the opinion of one out of 500 of the people I know in my village. And it’s like three people have that same opinion. You’re like, Damn, I need to adjust my behavior because that is a very large percentage of the people I know that have an issue with what I’m doing or saying or looking like blah, blah, blah. The issue with social media and the way that it connects us is we all of a sudden have opinions on thousands of people. Thousands of people. But, when I get a comment on my YouTube, it’s like, wow, she looks really fat or something. My little monkey brain reacts. Not like that one in 3 million people have come across my content in the past year and decided to leave something. My little monkey brain responds like That’s one out of 500 people in my village saying that to me, it’s very, very difficult to not take things personal.
Casey McQuillen: I think social media and reality TV are contributing to our objectification of personhood. Instead of being a person. You are primarily a consumer, an entity, a brand. And this is for everyone, not just people in the public eye. You know, I have no issue critiquing Nike. It’s Nike does a campaign that I don’t like. I might turn to a friend and say, Oh my God, that was really like tone deaf. Why did Nike do that? But then when you have like a, you know, a girl that, you know, who has 6,000, 5,000 Instagram followers and she’s really pretty. She’s a person. But then she’s also positioning herself as a brand. And you’re also getting said that she’s a brand. So, it’s a really small jump to say, why did she do that? It’s so tone deaf or, oh, look, I don’t even like that look. I could look at a Nike catalog and say, Oh, I don’t like that outfit. I don’t know why they put that, why they even released that. But then you look at a human being and you write on their post, Oh, why did you wear that? I don’t like that. It’s like the transition between critiquing objects and critiquing people is so it’s so blurred. And I think that is influenced by social media and reality TV. But I think it’s just it’s more like the world is changing and our brains are staying the same. And so how do we deal with a monkey brain when we don’t live in a monkey society anymore?
Gabe Howard: That actually makes a lot of sense because. Because I feel that way, too. Whenever anybody compliments me, it’s always part of this larger group. But whenever somebody criticizes me, it’s always like it came from my mom. It doesn’t matter that they’re both strangers on the Internet, right? It just the insults feel like it’s coming from this close-knit community that you’ve built.
Casey McQuillen: Exactly. And here’s the thing. I think that it might be too much pressure to expect individual people to take on that burden. I think that we should be having these conversations and engaging at the at the legislative level. So, for example, a really obvious way to look at this is the problem of Photoshop. How about Photoshop and makeup. When you’re selling a makeup product and Photoshopping the person? I think that that’s misleading advertising. I think if you’re saying, look at this blurring primer and then you blurred the girls tour with Photoshop, I think that’s misleading. Right? And so, is it the is it the responsibility? Let’s say you have a 15-year-old girl and she’s beginning to get into the camera girl or boy, and they’re beginning to get into makeup. They’re interested in expressing themselves. And their parents, of course, do not want to discourage them from any type of self-expression. But the parents are also really worried about the representation and the misleading nature of images in the beauty community. Is it the responsibility of the 15-year-old to look at that photo and inherently know it’s Photoshop? No psychologists would say it’s not possible to look at that photo and not internalize it at some point. Okay. Is it the is it the responsibility of the parents to never let that that child go to a mall, never let, blocks for a dot com so they can’t see those images? That’s a pretty steep burden to put on a parent when parents have a million other things they have to worry about.
Casey McQuillen: Does the more logical place seem to be that we should be adjusting the laws at a legislative level so that you can’t Photoshop images that are in view to level the playing field? No one gets to do it instead of right now, everybody does it. But this is the issue with taking collective action is very difficult when the beauty has a lobbying power and they really care about being able to keep doing whatever they want to do. It’s really hard to say I’m I need to change my mindset to not be bothered. It’s like we need to be structuring Instagram, Facebook to better support the way our brains are naturally wired as opposed to continuously trying to improve ourselves to fit into this damaging structure that exists around us.
Gabe Howard: Your anti-bullying work speaks to me just as loudly as your mental health advocacy work. So, I’ve told you a little bit about my story. I just kind of want to know a little bit about what made you personally want to incorporate anti-bullying into your advocacy.
Casey McQuillen: My personal story is I was I was picked on in the way that kids get picked on in Disney movies. And you go to that. That didn’t happen. No one shoots no one shoots spitballs at you while giving a student Council presentation and trips you in the hallway. And that was the kind of bullying I had. And I found that for me, the lasting effect of being bullied was an internal dialog of self-doubt. When I said, you know, kids go look for weaknesses. And so, for me, I was I was the dorky kid who would give the student announcements with the principal and was the head of student council and all of that. I was really engaged and bright and happy. And so, the way that those the kids who wanted to take me down a peg would pick on me, would be based on my appearance. And the chorus in my head about the critique of my appearance has not gone away since I was 13 years old and is of course influenced now by having anxiety disorder by these things, compound and manifest and grow on each other. And so, my goal by going into schools and to talk to kids is to.
Casey McQuillen: To add some empathy in a very, very egocentric time of your life. Right. Like, I think for me, the connection I might have with the kid who’s being picked on, who is in the process of having that internal dialog in their mind set by what people are saying to them, and by going in and being a positive role model and being funny and loud and happy and joyful and all of these things that I am and I actively try to present when I’m in school. It kind of rewrites the story a little bit, thinking of themselves in this negative way. I hope if they can, if they can see themselves in relationship to me and myself 15 years later, after all the work that I’ve done to try to recover, it might help them resist that negative internal dialog that their brains are currently wiring.
Gabe Howard: I love what you said about that negative internal dialog because it’s ever-present. Right? Something that somebody said to you when you were ten, 12, 13, 14, 15, held 20 years old. And then all these years later, you’re laying awake in the middle of the night and you’re like, Hey, should I give this speech? Should I ask this question? Should I publish this book? Should I start this podcast? Should I whatever it is you want to do? And suddenly that line that’s years, decades old pops up at the perfect time because it’s been embedded and implanted. Is that what it felt like for you, that something that was said to you at 12 suddenly just popped up out of nowhere when you were 25?
Casey McQuillen: I definitely have that experience of active negative talk, like an actual voice in my head that says unkind things to me where I’ll be looking in the mirror and I’ll be like, You look disgusting. And then I. And then I have the tools to be like, Wait a second. That is a really unkind thing that just popped into my head. I would never think that about anyone else. Where is this coming from? And you can go through and begin to deconstruct. But I also think there’s a more subtle underlying river of self-doubt that you can go down where it’s not that you think a negative thing about yourself, it’s that you never decide to go up and talk to that person that you’re interested in because they’d never be interested in me. And you never. You don’t think. Well, well, I won’t I won’t try out for that that talent show, because I’m not the kind of girl who wins those kinds of things. And if you develop seeing yourself through a negative mindset. And I think a lot of that has to do with what’s reinforced to us as children. It can it can push you on a different river than you would have gone down, because you don’t know where you could have ended up if you had believed in yourself. I think I think for me that’s been one of the most challenging aspects of growing up and being in therapy and dealing with my anxiety disorder and trying to parse out what stories am I telling myself about myself, what character have I written for myself in the story of my life? And how is that influencing the choices that I make in the opportunities I’m even allowing myself to see?
Gabe Howard: I think it’s super powerful that you have this idea in your head that it might not be true. That that was something that was missing for me. I assumed that the voices in my head I thought they were right. They were 100% right. And it didn’t even occur to me to challenge them until years later. I was well into adulthood. I think I was in my thirties. Right. So, I’m not even a young adult at this point.
Casey McQuillen: That’s the issue with bullying, right? I went to a music college that was predominantly male, and so I had experiences of misogyny where men tried to imply that I was stupid in class. I had a 4.0 and was on a scholarship. I’m not stupid and it’s not something I’m insecure about. So those things never took root in my brain. They didn’t have anything to hold on to because it wasn’t something that someone had said to me when I was 12 years old as a reason for someone to pick on me. Right.
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Gabe Howard: And we are back discussing anti-bullying with American Idol contestant Casey McQuillen.
Casey McQuillen: But the things that matter that are negative are the things that reaffirm the negative self-talk we have in our own head. That’s why I focus my anti-bullying program on your relationship with yourself, because you can’t really control what other people say to you. But the impact it has has to do with how you view yourself and how you frame yourself and your character, the storyline. So, I’ll tell you a story. This is how I end my anti-bullying program, right? So, I’ll give it away. But I don’t think there’s a lot of 12-year-old little middle schoolers in there.
Gabe Howard: That is not my demographic. Twelve-year-olds are not the podcasting demographic.
Casey McQuillen: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: So, you’re probably safe.
Casey McQuillen: But their parents are listening. Book me. I’ll come. I’ll come to your school. But so, I end my program. So, I do this whole thing where I tell I wrote all these songs when I was 13, 15, 17 years old. I did not go back as an adult and try to capture what it feels like to be 13. I have songs from when I was 13 and that’s the magic of the program, is that it feels very authentic because it is. There’s nothing harder than trying to describe what it’s like to be 15 when you’re 30. And so, I tell all these stories, and for me, the songs that I wrote about bullying that are personal have to do with my appearance. These are issues I’m still dealing with to this day.
Casey McQuillen: And I ended up going to different high school, be with different people, and made new friends there. I went to Berklee College of Music. I made new friends there. And then I went on American Idol. And the night that my Idol premiere, my Idol audition premiere, it was really exciting. We got like 100 of my friends into my tiny apartment in Boston and we’re like screaming and finally I’m on and my audition goes great, and I get three golden tickets and blah, blah, blah. It’s this great time. And so, I go to my room for a second because I was having anxiety and I was just a bit overwhelmed in a positive way. But I just needed a second to myself.
Casey McQuillen: And I look at my phone and I had a text from somebody, a friend of mine, another musician who lives down in Nashville. So, she wasn’t with us at the time. And she texted me and she said, You got to go on Twitter. You’re like trending on Twitter right now. So, I’m like, Oh my God, you have to remember, I’m 21 at this age. I’m so young. I’ve been I’ve been so hoping for this kind of validation. And it was so exciting. And it was like the first time the Internet was ever polite. It was just people from all over the world tweeting about like, what a lovely young lady I was and how great and how happy they were for me. And it was just an amazing experience. And I’m reading through like hundreds and hundreds of tweets and I looked up my name. I didn’t I wasn’t people who had added me. I looked up and on Twitter and my little subconscious brain recognizes something I like, recognize a name or an image or something. And I scroll back up and I find a conversation, a tweeting conversation between the girls that I went to middle school with, who I had gone to, boarding school, I’d gone to college. I hadn’t seen these girls in like eight years. And they were on Twitter using my full name saying like, Oh my God, Casey McQuillen is so disgusting.
Casey McQuillen: And what they really said was, I have had to edit that part out of my program because I don’t want to even introduce that phrase into middle schools. That’s how vulgar they were being. But they went back and forth about how don’t people realize she’s disgusting, she’s not even talented, doesn’t know she looks fat in that outfit, blah, blah, blah. And so, I tell the kids this and I just spent I just spent an hour setting up the emotional power that these girls had over me when I was 13. And I turned to the students and I say, Do you want to know what I did? And they’re like holding bated breath, like, oh, my God. Oh, what happened? Oh, my God, that’s awesome. And I look at the kids and I go, I burst out laughing and went and showed all my new friends. Because I wasn’t 13 anymore and these girls didn’t have power over me. It was such a relief because my guidance counselors and my parents and my teachers and my friends had told me, they’re bullying you because they’re jealous of you. It isn’t you. And there was a part of me that forgave my 13-year-old self in that moment, because there was a part of me, my little 13-year-old broken little girl still living inside me, finally believed it wasn’t about me in middle school.
Gabe Howard: I absolutely love that story because I think of all the times that people have made fun of me or watched me bomb on stage. Right? Not everything we touch turns to gold. And in fact, I don’t want to ruin it for my listeners. But you didn’t win American Idol season 13,
Casey McQuillen: Oh, no, I didn’t.
Gabe Howard: I know. I know this. This guy named Caleb Johnson. I mean, just, I. I
Casey McQuillen: Talented man, talented.
Gabe Howard: No, no, he’s super talented. And obviously, he won. And that’s fantastic. And the bummer isn’t that he won. The bummer is that you didn’t, right? And framing things like that is super, super important. But I just I do think of all the people that watch me and comment on me and I’m just like, well, you know, the best that you can do is talk about me. The best that I can do is that thing that I’m doing right.
Casey McQuillen: Exactly.
Gabe Howard: Whether I win or lose, whatever amount of success that I have, I’m doing. You’re watching.
Casey McQuillen: I’m really giving all the secrets of my anti-bullying program away right now. But actually, how I start the program is I play my American Idol audition and I sing the song and I rock. I pick that song because I rock that song, right? Like it’s one of my best songs. So, I get to come out and guns blazing, you know what I mean? I got to give them a show to get these kids on my side. And what I do is I tell the story of. What it was like to be on TV in commercial. Every person I had ever met was watching me every week. Every person they’d ever met was watching me every week. My high school was having viewing parties. Every Tuesday or whenever it airs. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, I would get like 100 texts on my phone.
Casey McQuillen: I would say, Oh my God, this is so exciting. We love you. We’re so proud of you. You’re absolutely going to win. Because I got such a positive response from the judges. All of the blogs were writing that they thought I might win. So, all of my local newspapers were writing that they thought I was getting it right. And so, all of these things are happening. But I had a secret. That secret was that I had already been cut. You film the show months before they air and you sign an airtight NDA that you cannot tell anybody. Imagine the psychological trauma being 21 years old, having every person literally in my entire world reaching out to me, saying they were so proud of me that they’re giving me all this support because they know I’m going to win and I’ve already failed and I can’t tell them. And so, every week goes by and I get these same kinds of text messages, how much they love me, how proud they are, American Idol was the best thing that’s ever happened. It’s amazing, right? And finally, weeks go by and finally it’s the week I know I’m going to get cut.
Casey McQuillen: And I remember I was sitting in my parent’s living room with them and I just was sick to my stomach. I had stopped eating. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t socialize. I was completely miserable because I felt like I was I felt like a trapped rat. I say to the kids, did you want to know what happened?
Gabe Howard: I want to know what happened. Like, I’m on the edge of my seat here, and I’m not. I’m not 12. This is working. This is good stuff.
Casey McQuillen: So those same hundred people that had an hour earlier texted me that American Idol was the best thing that I ever did in my life. Text to me, I got a hundred text messages like this. Well, American Idol is stupid and they are so dumb and I will never watch this show again. And this is a travesty. And you don’t need them. You’re going to do this the old-fashioned way. And we love you and we’re proud of you. Because, of course. Everyone in my life didn’t love me because of American Idol. They loved American Idol because of me. They loved me because I’m me. And what it allows me to realize at 21 years old, losing American Idol is the best thing that ever happened to me because I failed on national TV in front of millions of people and nobody noticed. Not only did nobody notice, but it’s about nine years later and you introduced me on this podcast as having been on the show as a success. It was the first success you introduced about me. And again, it’s about reframing. It broke my obsession with perfection and allowed me to identify success as moving forward, not coming in first place.
Gabe Howard: I absolutely love all of this. And I want to say to our listeners, you know, not everybody can fail in front of 40 million people. Right? It’s that is a that is a big, big group of people, Casey. But, like you said, the world didn’t end.
Casey McQuillen: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: The world didn’t end. You’ve released albums and done, you know, mental health advocacy and bullying and advocacy. Extraordinarily successful. And I love that you have framed all of this as coming out as the quote unquote thing that you failed at. And I’m making air quotes because you didn’t fail. You were on American Idol. 40 million people watched you sing. That is, there are so many people that want to be you.
Casey McQuillen: Well, that’s the funny thing about life. You know, I’ve anxiety disorder, I’ve done cognitive therapy and it works because it’s all about like taking control of your brain. It’s a little. But I found that it really there were some specific things that were really helpful for me. And one of those things, it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s imagining the worst-case scenario because I am so lucky that I live a life with the worst-case scenario is usually not that bad. It’s usually something I could handle. So, when I was in college, it would be like, Let’s say I’m panicking about a test. And I’m really starting to spiral down an anxiety rabbit hole. What’s the worst-case scenario? I fail the test and maybe fail the class. Okay, so the literal worst-case scenario, I have to take the class again. And then when you realize our bodies respond to, like stimuli, like we’re being chased by a tiger, but we’re no longer being chased by tigers. So, we have these crazy chemical responses to stress stimuli that don’t always serve us.
Gabe Howard: Casey, your debut album just came out a few months ago and it’s called Skinny and there’s a song on there called “Can a Heart Go Bad?” Excellent song. And it focuses on anxiety and depression. What was it like writing that song? What was it like making the album Skinny? Can you can you sort of give us that whole story?
Casey McQuillen: So, I have two songs on my album that just came out that deal with mental health. The first one is called “Skinny” and it is the title track of the album and it deals with my relationship with Body Dysmorphia, and that song was pretty straightforward. It’s a story of someone me engaging on a night out with their friends and focusing on how much better that night would be going if they were fit. And kind of the trauma of holding myself to a standard that I can’t meet or may not want to actually meet. If I were to get down into the details of what I would have to change about me in my life in order to be that person. But the song “Can a Heart Go Bad?” is the other song on my album that deals with mental health issues, and this song is a little bit more complex. I wrote this song not just about my anxiety disorder, but I wrote this song about what it was like to have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder as a child. I wrote this song, real talk, after a therapy session that was very intense where I said to my therapist, Oh, I was such a bad kid, such a bad kid. And he said, Really, really? You were a bad kid? Oh, yeah. I was just like such a disaster. And he had me describe what I would do. And what I’m feeling is I would have unchecked panic attacks because I was not receiving any treatment and nobody knew.
Casey McQuillen: We didn’t know what was wrong. And my therapist said, you know, do you think eight-year-olds are responsible for the emotional well-being of a family? I said, Well, no. And he said, Well, do you think you, as an eight-year-old were supposed to be emotional well-being of your family? And he started to deconstruct and a very painful way for me again about this reframing. I looked at my childhood, the lens of what I was, a bad kid, and my poor parents look what they had to deal with. I would never look at another child experience that way. I would say that poor child. I wish that child could have received help earlier. And I was incredibly upset. I got mad at my therapist like it was one of those therapy sessions where, like, he was pressing a button that I wasn’t fully ready to have pressed. And I sat down and I wrote this song and it was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever written in my life. And if you listen to it, it starts. The lyrics start with, I’m really sorry.
Casey McQuillen: I didn’t mean it, but I can’t take it back. Are you angry? I really hate it when you look at me like that. And it’s from the perspective of a child. The guilt after panic attacks. And look, in my disappointment in my parents faces and the belief that there must be something wrong with me if I keep doing this, I must be bad. This is my little eight-year-old logic. And so, the phrase can a heart go bad is the question that the narrator is asking over and over. This song is me as an adult going back in and asking for the help I couldn’t ask for as a child the words I didn’t have.
Gabe Howard: Casey, thank you so, so much for being here. I know that you mentioned that the song “Can a Heart Go Bad?” is available on Spotify. The new album is called Skinny. And hey, do you have a website that all of our listeners can come learn more about you at?
Casey McQuillen: Yes, I do. So, my last name is hard to spell as we discussed off air McQuillen. So, my website, my Instagram, my TikTok, blah blah blah blah blah. It’s all @listentocasey, all full words, like listen to Casey. My name, Casey, C A S E Y. And that’s my website, listentocasey.com and you can find all of my music, including this album that just came out, which by the way also has some fun bops on it. It’s not all just sad, depressing songs about my life. Some of them are fun, depressing songs about my life.
Gabe Howard: It’s a great album, check it out.
Casey McQuillen: Thank you. And also, on my website at listentocasey.com, there’s a tab called Bullying Awareness, Bullying Prevention. And that’s how you find out how to book me to come in to potentially your child’s school, high school, sorority, whatever you want, middle school, and come do my anti-bullying program and you can email me directly through there because I’m booking for spring and fall of next year. So, I’d love to see you guys.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, Casey, for being here.
Casey McQuillen: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Gabe Howard: You’re very welcome. And thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon because like everything, everything is on Amazon. Or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode please follow or subscribe to the show, it is absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend this show to your friends, family, colleagues. Whether it be social media or good old-fashioned world of mouth, sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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