Music for Mental Health- Crutch or Kryptonite?
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Many people use music as a form of therapy. It makes us glow when we're happy and it helps us heal when we're blue. Over the past 20-25 years, an increase in mental health conversation has arose (1). This has accompanied the drastic increase in suicide rates and mental-health-disorder prevalence in North America (2, 3). It is fascinating to consider the influences of music on mental health, given that its healing powers resonate so well with so many of us. Furthermore, I will discuss a Kresovich et al. study on the increasing occurrence of mental health references in North American rap music from 1998-2018 (2020). This paper discusses whether these song lyrics have positive or negative connotations. Are the songs starting a dialogue for those suffering, or are they influencing the listener to feel worse?
Edited image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay
The study in question was predominantly done on a particularly vulnerable population in the United States (1). A sample of the most popular rap songs over the last two decades was analyzed for the number of references to depression, anxiety, suicide, and metaphors for mental struggle. Of these songs, 84% were accredited to black, male artists. In North America, black youth, particularly men, face an increased vulnerability to mental health disorders due to exacerbated social, economic, and environmental stressors (4,5). Even though the artists are predominantly black, rap music is one of the most prominent American genres for listeners across all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities (6).
For the years 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013, and 2018, the Billboard top 25 rap songs from each year were analyzed for lyrics referring to struggles with mental health (1). It was found that, over time, there was a significant increase in lyrical references to suicide, depression, and struggling. Struggling was defined in the study as the use of metaphors such as "battling demons". However, this effect was not found for explicit references to anxiety. Still, these data correlate positively with the rising prevalence of suicide, depression, and anxiety in North Americans, particularly youth (2,3).
Now the question remains- what light can this paper be interpreted in? Music is first and foremost an expression of the artist. It is a creative outlet for them to vent. Given the rise in struggling of many, it makes sense that the artists would want to rap about their own experiences and the experience of others. This isn't necessarily a bad thing- conversations about mental health should be encouraged, as it reduces stigma for those affected. However, this increase in discussion should be taken with a grain of salt. To a young, impressionable mind, exposure to these topics should be exercised with caution. Although not studied in this paper, these lyrics could have a negative effect, if the idea of suicide and mental illness becomes over-glamorized in the media. That's not to say that artists should stop rapping about mental health- they are free to sing about what gives them meaning. It is more just a word of caution on the catch 22 of such powerful topics becoming "mainstream". With the new generation of youth willing to eat tide pods because of an internet trend, who knows where they will stop when trying to fit in with the status quo.
Written by Jessica
Kresovich A, Reffner Collins MK, Riffe D, Carpentier FRD. A Content Analysis of Mental Health Discourse in Popular Rap Music. JAMA Pediatr. 2021;175(3):286–292.
Mojtabai R, Olfson M, Han B. National trends in the prevalence and treatment of depression in adolescents and young adults. Pediatrics. 2016;138 (6):e20161878.
Curtin SC, Heron M. Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10–24: United States, 2000-2017. NCHS Data Brief. 2019; (352):1-8.
Francis DB. Young black men’s information seeking following celebrity depression disclosure: implications for mental health communication. J Health Commun. 2018;23(7):687-694.
Brown TN, Williams DR, Jackson JS, et al. “Being black and feeling blue”: the mental health consequences of racial discrimination. Race Soc. 2000;2(2):117-131.
Statistica. Favorite music genres among consumers in the United States as of July 2018, by age group [graph]. Published June 27, 2019. Accessed October 27, 2020. https://www.statista. com/statistics/253915/favorite-music-genres-inthe-us/