Jewel Explains Why She Prioritized Mental Health Over Fame: 'I Didn't Want to Have a Breakdown'

"I almost didn't sign my record contract," the multi-platinum recording artist recalls to PEOPLE in an exclusive interview

Jewel. Photo: Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Jewel is opening up about why prioritizing her mental health — while living in her car as a teenager and after exploding onto the music scene — has helped keep her the "happy, whole human" she is today.

"My goal when I moved out [of my house] at 15 was to learn a new emotional language," Jewel tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview.

"I knew that as much as I had a genetic inheritance that might predispose me to diabetes or heart disease, I could tell that I had an emotional inheritance and that might predispose me to cycles of addiction and abuse," she reveals.

As Jewel went from living alone in a cabin in Alaska at age 15 to living in her car in California to being discovered at a young age, the singer always focused on her mental health.

"When I got discovered — it's funny — I almost didn't sign my record contract because I was so aware that if you take somebody with my emotional background, and God forbid, I get famous…" the 48-year-old singer remembers.

"That's every movie you've seen of every celebrity. In this job, we lose more people to addiction, overdose, suicide, mental breakdowns, and I didn't want to be a statistic. So, I made myself a deal that I would sign that contract as long as my number one job remained learning how to be a happy, whole human," she tells PEOPLE.

Jewel on Prioritizing Mental Health Over Fame
Jewel and son Kase. Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

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She stayed true to her promise, taking two years off at the height of her career to avoid a mental breakdown and because she "needed time to psychologically adjust to the level of fame" she'd achieved. Jewel also took the last seven years off to focus on being a good mother to her 11-year-old son, Kase, who she shares with ex-husband Ty Murray.

The singer-songwriter says she prioritized her mental health then — and still does now — because she's seen too many successful people kill themselves and knew she wanted to stay alive.

"What's the point of a career If you want to jump off a building or take your life?" she asks. "What's the point of fame? What's the point of likes if you're not happy and if you don't like yourself?"

In part because of her own teen experiences, Jewel has worked alongside theInspiring Children Foundation for nearly 20 years, helping at-risk youth gain access to mental health tools.

For the holidays this year, her foundation is running the #NotAloneChallenge to raise awareness and funds to make mental health resources more widely available to those in need, and to make people feel less alone around the holidays.

"We really wanted to launch this campaign around the holidays to remind people they're not alone," Jewel tells PEOPLE. "It's not enough to just raise awareness. We have to offer solutions to people and that's my favorite part about the #NotAloneChallenge, is they can see resources that are free, that are available, and that are proven to work."

RELATED VIDEO: Jewel 'Determined to Heal' & Reconcile After Her Father Got Sober & 'Did Amazing Inner Work'

The #NotAloneChallenge features social media posts and auction items from celebrities and athletes including Billie Eilish, Andrea Bocelli, Kelly Clarkson, Kris Jenner, Frankie Grande, Mayim Bialik, Hunter Hayes, Melissa Rivers and more.

The passionate mental health advocate is also still singing. She recently released a new album, Freewheelin' Woman, that's an embodiment of who she is today.

"When it finally felt time to make this album I really wanted it to reflect who I was now at 48," Jewel reveals. "And it was the hardest thing I've ever done. It's the first time I've had to write an album from scratch, which was shocking."

Her new album is available now.

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