John Martinez, a 25-year-old Waterbury, Conn., man, lost a loved one in the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, where 49 people were killed and 58 others were wounded.
"I went through something dramatic in my life," Martinez says. "We were lovers. I didn't even know he was at the club that night, so when I woke up that morning, it was shocking. I never felt that in my life."
Martinez, a gay man working as a wardrobe stylist in Orlando, found solace in Lady Gaga's music. He listened to "Marry the Night," a song from her 2011 album "Born This Way." It was a beacon of hope, a song with a tangible coping strategy.
"'Marry the Night' was my song forever," Martinez says. "It tells you to marry the night: Don't ignore what's going bad in your life. Don't ignore it, marry it. It's part of your life. ... The bad emotions are going to get you to a better place."
But it wasn't enough. Martinez suffered from depression. "I was trying to party and go to the clubs and have fun, just to get my head out of it," he says. He lost his job and apartment. He lived in his car.
Eventually, Martinez returned to Waterbury, where most of his family lives. There, another part of Gaga's message — mental health awareness, the focus of her Born This Way Foundation — resonated. Spotting a flyer, Martinez signed up for Mental Health First Aid training, a free CPR-like program offered by Mental Health Connecticut, and many other organizations across the country.
"I was curious," Martinez says. "I wanted to help people who are going through mental illness. I ended up learning about myself."
Lady Gaga performs at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville on Nov. 9 and Nov. 11. On the morning of her Nov. 11 show, Mental Health Connecticut will host free Mental Health First Aid training at Mohegan Sun from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Similar programs will run on the UConn Storrs Campus on Nov. 10 and 17 (1:30 to 5:30 p.m.) and at the New Milford Public Library on Nov. 12 and 19 (1 to 5 p.m.).
The program, which was created by National Council for Behavioral Health and is promoted and implemented by Born This Way Foundation and local organizations like Mental Health Connecticut, is essentially a first-responders course for spotting mental health crises.
The 8-hour certificate program trains attendees to recognize symptoms and to steer community members toward local resources.
"You're getting trained as a better person in society," Martinez says. "It's something that everybody should have, just to help out your brother or co-worker."
Before the Pulse shooting, Martinez says, he was a support system for his friends. "I needed a support system myself," he says.
Martinez took the program at Naugatuck Community College, but says "it's all around Connecticut, at Mohegan Sun, in colleges. They're coming to you."
On the 2013 Born This Way Tour (not long after the December 2012 Newtown shooting), Lady Gaga's Born Brave Bus tailgated at shows. Inside, Gaga and her team counseled Little Monsters (her fans) with mental health, depression and bullying problems.
Martinez won't attend Lady Gaga's concerts this weekend, but he will appear at the Nov. 11 Mental Health First Aid Trainings at Mohegan Sun.
"You think they're exaggerating sometimes when a co-worker complains about problems," Martinez says, "but I can identify if someone is grieving or depressed. Everybody has to help each other."
LADY GAGA performs Nov. 9 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Mohegan Sun. Tickets start at $50. 860-226-7711 and mohegansun.com.
Mental Health Connecticut hosts free Mental Health First Aid training at the casino from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 11. Similar programs will run on the UConn Storrs Campus on Nov. 10 and 17 (1:30 to 5:30 p.m.) and at the New Milford Public Library on Nov. 12 and 19 (1 to 5 p.m.). More training sessions and information at mhconn.org/education/mental-health-first-aid