Mental health, depression and suicide references in US rap songs have more than doubled in 20 years, says study
According to the authors, artists through their lyrics have the potential to shape mental health discourse and reduce stigma
Popular rap songs in the US are increasingly referencing depression and suicide, and mixing in metaphors about mental health struggles, according to researchers. They found that the proportion of rap songs that referenced mental health more than doubled between1998 and 2018 — the year rap outsold country music to become the best-selling genre of music.
This may reflect the distress felt by the artists themselves and the people around them, but there could be an upside, say authors from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, who led the study. According to them, the increase in mental health messages from rap artists could shape the conversation around mental health for their young listeners who are at an increased risk of experiencing mental health issues.
Stating that rap artists are among the most recognizable celebrities in the US, serving as “role models to an increasingly diverse audience of listeners,” the team suggest that through their lyrics, these artists have the potential to reduce stigma. “These artists are considered the "coolest" people on earth right now. The fact that they are talking about mental health could have huge implications for how young people perceive mental health or how they look at themselves if they struggle with mental health, which we know millions and millions of young people do,” explains lead author Alex Kresovich, a media fellow at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The findings have been published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Psychological stress among those from 18 to 25 years old has increased significantly in the US, and suicide rates have climbed among Black teenagers who are a significant portion of rap music’s large and growing audience, say investigators. But the rap audience is a mix of listeners from all genders, races and varying socioeconomic groups, which adds to artists’ power to influence, and the artists are also largely their peers, Kresovich notes.
Krescovich, a former music producer studying health communication, explains that while rap has always been a personal and narrative music form, he could hear things changing. According to him, emotions were increasingly laid bare between the beats of many chart-topping rap songs by Drake, Post Malone, Juice Wrld, Eminem, Lil' Wayne, Jay-Z and Kanye West, among others.
For the current study, the team analyzed lyric sheets from the most popular rap songs in the US in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018. The average age of the artists behind the 125 rap songs was 28 years old, and most lead artists were Black men. Nearly one-third of the songs referenced anxiety, 22% referenced depression, and 6% referenced suicide. “Across the sample, 35 songs (28%) referenced anxiety, 28 (22%) referenced depression; 8 (6%) referenced suicide, and 26 (21%) used a mental health metaphor. Significant increases were found from 1998 to 2018 in the proportion of songs referencing suicide (0% to 12%), depression (16% to 32%), and mental health metaphors (8% to 44%),” the findings state.
In the songs, the most common mental health stressors were love and environmental issues, such as living conditions, crime, and racism. But the authors faced the challenge of interpreting artists’ intended meaning behind their lyrics and the report could not determine if listeners consider the messages as positive or negative. Most surprising in the findings was the rise of mental health metaphors in rap songs. Those metaphors could help to understand the language used to describe mental health. Phrases like “pushed to the edge” or “fighting my demons” may suggest anxiety without explicitly noting anxiety, stress experts.
“The findings of this qualitative study suggest that mental health discourse has been increasing during the past 2 decades within the most popular rap music in the US. This increase has occurred amid a corresponding increase in national mental health risk, especially with respect to depressive and suicidal thoughts among young Black/African American male individuals and US young people more generally, who constitute a major portion of the rap music audience,” the report contends.
According to Kresovich, using metaphors may be a safe way to avoid being judged. “For men, especially men of color, mental health is still stigmatized. Artists are treading lightly and aren’t going to say, ‘I’m depressed.’ But what they will do is describe feelings in a way that others with depression can understand and relate to. It also just may be really hard to rhyme the word 'depression' in a song,” he adds. Future research is needed to examine the potential positive and negative effects these increasingly prevalent messages may have in shaping mental health discourse and behavioral intentions for US youth, the team concludes.