Music helps DJ preserve mental health, encourage others

Every Thursday at The Kennedy Soho night club, JoeyEls watches his name light up the stage as he takes his accustomed spot behind the main DJ table. This 18-plus club is routinely packed with students from The University of Tampa, due to its location being only about a mile from the campus.

Unfazed by the lights and energy of the boutique lounge crowd, JoeyEls plugs his USB drive into his laptop, loads up his playlists, and slides on his black Sony headphones. He disappears into his own world as his fellow peers dance the night away.

DJing is something that JoeyEls says he will never quit doing, no matter where he lands in whatever city. This past summer, he was flown up to Toronto to DJ for Michael Del Zotto’s Stanley Cup party. In the past he has also had the chance to DJ overseas in Europe and Anguilla.

“I was in Greece, on an island called Cyprus, with my family. This island has about 2,000 people, at most, it’s a very small island. My dad’s friend Pavlos who is from the island asked one of the local night clubs if I could DJ that night, and he literally just said ‘yeah.’ It was that easy,” he says. “I don’t want to say I have an end goal specifically, because I will always be trying to step my way up the ladder and find gigs wherever I am, but my dream would be to play a pool party in Miami during Miami Music Week.”

His love of DJing helped him find peace and a purpose. 

“The summer before I left college, I tried to take my own life two weeks after I turned 18. … I can share this story now, but a few years ago I would be struggling to talk about this,” says Joseph Loiacono, now a 24-year-old senior, business management major, known at the club as JoeyEls. 

“I grew up playing hockey. It was my only life and only passion, but after getting six concussions throughout my career, I was forced to retire. After my last concussion, things began getting dark and that is when something changed in me,” Loiacono says. 

Hitting bottom before getting help

Loiacono was asked to take leave from the University of Massachusetts after three semesters due to poor grades. A few months later, he attended Ultra Music Festival where he experimented with a common festival drug called Acid or LSD. This, on top of his unhealthy lifestyle and bout with depression, is what led to his third hospitalization.

“S**t didn’t hit the fan until a couple of weeks later. I slowly started to lose my sense of reality and I had a psychotic break down, leading to my second time in a psychiatric hospital,” Loiacono says. “This time I was stuck in there for a few weeks.”

The months following his release would be his most difficult. Many of his close friends distanced themselves from him and stopped associating with him. 

It was at Saint Catherine’s of Sienna in Long Island, NY where he was ultimately diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. This diagnosis and treatment gave him the chance to finally get on the right medication and start working toward a healthy recovery.

“There is a good six-to-eight-month period that I have no recollection of,” Loiacono says. “I was going through severe withdrawals because I was abruptly taken off my previous meds for depression while also trying to get used to my new prescription.”

He explains that his parents had to help him in virtually every aspect of life from showering to feeding him. "I was 19 or 20 years old at the time. I would wake up in the middle of the night, profusely sweating and shaking with night tremors and sometimes even vomiting. … This is what my parents have told me. I don’t remember any of it.” 

With the support of his parents and doctors, he managed to finally pull himself out of this state. He eventually regained the trust of his friends who had shunned him during this time, not understanding what was happening to someone they thought they knew so well. He says it took almost two years before he felt comfortable around people and putting himself into social situations.

He now realizes the importance of mental health and encourages everyone going through a tough time to not be afraid to speak to someone. People shouldn’t be afraid to get help if they think they need it, he advises, because it can potentially save their life or simply improve their quality of living.

Music was his therapy, recovery, and what still keeps him happy and stable to this day.

In control of the room and his life

Josh McElwee, a junior biology major, also known as MYR Music, has had the chance to watch and work alongside Loiacono as he has grown his presence in the Tampa Bay Area.

“It’s clear that he’s aware that he’s in control of the whole room,” McElwee says. “To see how much he’s been able to adapt to the scene here in Tampa and push through is super impressive.”

From his place on stage, Loiacono appears to have everything in order. From the lighting as it coincides with the bass drop to the slight switch in pitch as the song changes. Observers would never guess the internal battles JoeyEls has overcome just within the last couple of years.

“I don’t know exactly what it is, but the vibe of The Kennedy is unbeatable,” says sophomore economic major Zach Decosta. “I don’t personally know the DJ, but he really knows how to get the crowd going, I could stay there all night.”  

Coming off the stage after a great set reminds Loiacono of the feeling years ago of stepping off the ice after a big game, a win in his back pocket. The energy, the adrenaline, it all goes back to what he lost when he was forced to give up his hockey career. 

At the end of the night, he takes off his headphones and checks back into reality. He looks across at his sweaty peers, the lights go dark, and the music fades.

Loiacono knows he will be back again next week.

“It’s a healing thing and I’m never going to stop, it makes me feel good and almost feels like therapy when I’m on the decks controlling the energy of the room.” 

For more information, follow these links:

The Kennedy Soho
The University of Tampa
The Minaret

This story was first published in the University of Tampa student newspaper, The Minaret.
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Read more articles by Lauren Wong.

Lauren Wong is a graduate of the University of Tampa with a degree in journalism who is freelancing while she looks for a full-time job. Originally from the Chicago area, she enjoys travel and aspires to be a travel photojournalist. During the summer of 2019, she worked for Premier Travel Media in Chicago and as a correspondent for Input Fort Wayne, another Issue Media group online magazine based in Indiana. She loves spending time outdoors camping, kayaking, and taking pictures.