Rap Music Mention of Mental Health Topics More Than Doubles

Heidi Splete

December 09, 2020

References to mental health issues in popular rap music more than doubled in the period from 1998 to 2018, based on data from a review of 125 songs.

Mental health distress is rising but often is undertreated among children and young adults in the United States, wrote Alex Kresovich, MA, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and colleagues.

"Mental health risk especially is increasing among young Black/ African American male individuals (YBAAM), who are often disproportionately exposed to environmental, economic, and family stressors linked with depression and anxiety," they said. Adolescents and young adults, especially YBAAM, make up a large part of the audience for rap music.

In recent years, more rap artists have disclosed mental health issues, and they have included mental health topics such as depression and suicidal thoughts into their music, the researchers said.

In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers identified 125 songs from the period between 1998 and 2018, then assessed them for references to mental health. The song selections included the top 25 rap songs in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013, and 2018, based on the Billboard music charts.

Rap artist Jay Z

The majority of the songs (123) featured lead artists from North America, and 97 of them were Black/African American males. The average age of the artists was 28 years. "Prominent artists captured in the sample included 50 Cent, Drake, Eminem, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil’Wayne, among others," they said. The researchers divided mental health issues into four categories: anxiety or anxious thinking; depression or depressive thinking; metaphors (such as struggling with mental stability); and suicide or suicidal ideation.

Mental Health References Rise

Across the study period, 35 songs (28%) mentioned anxiety, 28 (22%) mentioned depression, 8 (6%) mentioned suicide, and 26 (21%) mentioned a mental health metaphor. The proportion of songs with a mental health reference increased in a significant linear trend across the study period for suicide (0%-12%), depression (16%-32%), and mental health metaphors (8%-44%).

All references to suicide or suicidal ideation were found in songs that were popular between 2013 and 2018, the researchers noted.

"This increase is important, given that rap artists serve as role models to their audience, which extends beyond YBAAM to include U.S. young people across strata, constituting a large group with increased risk of mental health issues and underuse of mental health services," Kresovich and associates said.

In addition, the researchers found that stressors related to environmental conditions and love were significantly more likely to co-occur with mental health references (adjusted odds ratios 8.1 and 4.8, respectively).

The study findings were limited by several factors including the selection of songs only from the Billboard hot rap songs year-end charts, which "does not fully represent the population of rap music between 1998 and 2018," the researchers said. In addition, they could not address causation or motivations for the increased mental health references over the study period. "We are also unable to ascertain how U.S. youth interact with this music or are positively or negatively affected by its messages."

"For example, positively framed references to mental health awareness, treatment, or support may lead to reduced stigma and increased willingness to seek treatment," Kresovich and associates wrote. "However, negatively framed references to mental health struggles might lead to negative outcomes, including copycat behavior in which listeners model harmful behavior, such as suicide attempts, if those behaviors are described in lyrics (i.e., the Werther effect)," they added.

Despite these limitations, the results support the need for more research on the impact of rap music as a way to reduce stigma and potentially reduce mental health risk in adolescents and young adults, Kresovich and associates concluded.

Music May Help Raise Tough Topics

The study is important because children and adolescents have more control than ever over the media they consume, Sarah Vinton, MD, founder of the Lorio Psych Group in Atlanta, said in an interview.

"With more and more children with access to their own devices, they spend a great amount of time consuming content, including music," Vinton said. "The norms reflected in the lyrics they hear have an impact on their emerging view of themselves, others, and the world."

The increased recognition of mental health issues by rap musicians as a topic "certainly has the potential to have a positive impact; however, the way that it is discussed can influence [the] nature of that impact," she explained.

"It is important for people who are dealing with the normal range of human emotions to know that they are not alone. It is even more important for people dealing with suicidality or mental illness to know that," Vinton said.

"Validation and sense of connection are human needs, and stigma related to mental illness can be isolating," she emphasized. "Rappers have a platform and are often people that children and adolescents look up to, for better or for worse." Through their music, "the rappers are signaling that these topics are worthy of our attention and okay to talk about."

Unfortunately, many barriers persist for adolescents in need of mental health treatment, said Vinton. "The children’s mental health workforce, quantitatively, is not enough to meet the current needs," she said. "Mental health is not reimbursed at the same rate as other kinds of health care, which contributes to healthy systems not prioritizing these services. Additionally, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic background of those who are mental health providers is not reflective of the larger population, and mental health training insufficiently incorporates the cultural and structural humility needed to help professionals navigate those differences," she explained.

"Children at increased risk are those who face many of those environmental barriers that the rappers reference in those lyrics. They are likely to have even poorer access because they are disproportionately impacted by residential segregation, transportation challenges, financial barriers, and structural racism in mental health care," Vinton added. A take-home message for clinicians is to find out what their patients are listening to. "One way to understand what is on the hearts and minds of children is to ask them what’s in their playlist," she said.

Additional research is needed to examine "moderating factors for the impact, good or bad, of increased mental health content in hip hop for young listeners’ mental health awareness, symptoms and/or interest in seeking treatment," Vinton concluded.

The study received no outside funding. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.

Vinton served as chair for a workshop on mental health and hip-hop at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting. She had no financial conflicts to disclose.

SOURCE: Kresovich A et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2020 Dec 7. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.5155.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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