DepressionMental Health

References to depression and suicide in rap lyrics doubled from 1998 – 2018, in step with the nationwide “mental health crisis”

rap lyrics and mental health depression anxiety suicide

A new study of rap lyrics has found that America’s most popular rap songs are making more and more references to mental health problems, especially suicide and depression.

The study’s authors looked at the lyrics from the top 25 rap songs released in the years 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013, and 2018. The researchers got their data about song rankings, sales, airplay, and popularity from companies such as Billboard and Nielsen. Artists whose lyrics the study analyzed included Geto Boys, Eminem, Post Malone, Drake, Lil’ Wayne, Juice Wrld, Kanye West, and Jay-Z.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their research appears today in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Anxiety, depression, and suicide

The researchers analyzed the lyrics for references to anxiety (example lyric: “What’s takin’ so long? I’m getting’ anxious…”), depression (“Went through deep depression when my mama passed…”), and suicide (“Suicide if you ever try to let go…”). They used definitions from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) and the Mayo Clinic’s descriptions of anxiety and depression.

Overall, they found, about a third of these 125 songs referred to anxiety. Likewise, about 22% referred to depression, and 6% to suicide.

Notably, these percentages were more than twice as high in 2018 as they were in 1998.

More specifically, they found that general mental health metaphors increased from 8% to 44% during those two decades. References to suicide grew from 0% to 12%, and references to depression grew from 16% to 32%.

In 1998, only 32% of the 25 most popular rap songs referred to mental health, but by 2018 that amount had grown to 68%.

Shift in rap lyrics parallels mental health crisis

This trend goes hand in hand with what some have called the “mental health crisis” in the United States. 

For example, recent studies have found that psychological stress and suicide risk increased significantly from 2008 to 2017, especially among 18 to 25 year-olds. Likewise, the prevalence of “major depressive episodes” among US adolescents significantly increased from 2005 to 2014. Anxiety currently affects about 30% of adolescents, while 80% of those affected never seek treatment. In 2017, the suicide rate among 15 – 24 year olds in the US reached its highest level since 1960. And from 2007 to 2017, the suicide rate among people aged 10 to 24 increased by 56%.

An impressionable audience

This finding about the increase in rap lyrics’ references to mental health issues matters immensely. Rap music is particularly popular among young people. US youth now spend almost 40 hours per week listening to music, a figure that is increasing quickly.

And as the study reports, “rap artists serve as role models to their audience,” an audience that extends across all socioeconomic strata and ethnicities. As such, rap artists influence “the development of these young people’s identities.”

Of course, as the authors explain, “We also cannot address causation or motivations for the increased presence of mental health references within the sampled songs.”

More research, they write, is needed to to help researchers understand “how this music can improve the mental health of its listeners or how it might lead to greater risk.”

In conclusion, the authors write, “this study supports the need for research examining the effects of rap music in efforts to reduce stigma and minimize mental health risk.”

Study:A Content Analysis of Mental Health Discourse in Popular Rap Music
Authors: Alex Kresovich, Meredith K. Reffner Collins, Daniel Riffe, and Francesca R. Dillman Carpentier
Published in: JAMA Pediatrics
Publication date: December 7, 2020
DOI: doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.5155
Photo: by Armando Orozco from Pixabay