Mental Illness in Music: From Haunting Ballads to Anthems of Recovery

Halsey has bipolar. So does Mary Lambert—she even says so in her song “Secrets.” Musicians have embedded the theme of mental illness into their music for decades. Remember the anthem of every depressed teen? The Rolling Stones “Paint it Black” carved its way into the adolescent language and landscape. The Stones also wrote “19th Nervous Breakdown” also about mental illness. There’s the dark, shadowy hymns of Evanescence with their song “lithium”. Lithium finds its way into the work of a lot of bands and artists. Nirvana immortalized the drug with “lithium.” There are Blaine Larsen’s “How do you get that lonely?” a song about teen suicide and “Starry, Starry Night” by Don Mclean a song about the artist Van Gogh’s manic- depressive illness. There are songs about self-injury. The classics include the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” and “Scar Tissue.” There is the famous Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”—a Johnny Cash rendition. There are 90s ballads about relationships and mental illness/suicide such as “Jumper” by third eye blind, “She don’t want the world,” by 3 doors down, and “It’s been awhile” by Staind and “Freshman” by the verve pipe. “Kryptonite” by 3 doors down and “Bitch” by Merideth Brooks are about people in relationships who have mental illness or witness it in the other. There’s the haunting “Iris” by the goo goo dolls about suicide ideation. Matchbox 20 normalized the subject with “Unwell,” “Push,” and “Real World.”

Ballads like these have been written and sung through the ages. Billie Holiday sang a haunting ballad “Gloomy Sunday” –which legend says drives those who listen to it to suicide. Don’t forget this song was written during the Great Depression. 

Studies show that teens who listen to music for approximately 2 to 3 hours a day, especially when feeling distressed have a greater chance of suicidal ideation and suicide. The link between music and depression in young people has led to music being blamed for the suicide of youths. 

Then, there are the positive anthems promoting health and recovery. “Broken and Beautiful” by Kelly Clarkson, “Rise Up” by Andra Day and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles to name a few. There are songs about college students—the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” There is also a rendition of it by Limp Bizcuit. And, there are songs about losing sobriety and gaining recovery in “Sober” by Demi Lovato. 

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