More than simply being earworms, the best songs are those that resonate within.
For more than 50 years, artists from The Beatles and The Beach Boys to Jay-Z and Demi Lovato have attempted this with heartfelt explorations of mental health, with the hope of inspiring listeners to seek support.
Sometimes this is done through evocative and metaphorical wordplay, while at other times, these implorations are stark and direct.
Here are 10 songs, spanning pop, rock, electro and hip-hop, which bravely tackle stigmas surrounding mental health with empathy.
1. ‘Help!’ by The Beatles (1965)
This may sound like a timeless pop nugget, but beneath the ebullient melodies is a cry for help. The title track for The Fab Four’s 1965 album, John Lennon wrote the song to express the growing anxiety he felt as a result of the band’s fame.
In subsequent interviews throughout his solo career, Lennon would reflect on the track and describe it as an attempt to face his struggles and chart a way by reaching out for help.
2. ‘Now I’m In It’ by Haim (2019)
The most important relationship you can have is the one with yourself. That’s the crux of this brooding ballad by the big-selling pop group.
As the lyrics unfurl, we find out that singer Danielle Haim is pining for peace of mind, rather than a significant other. “Can’t get a read of myself,” she sings. “Need to change the situation.”
3. ‘1-800-273-8255’ by Logic (2017)
With hip-hop firmly established as one of today’s most popular genres, a rapper’s word is powerful. And perhaps none is more moving than Logic’s 1-800-273-8255.
Named after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US, the track shifts perspectives from a caller to the hotline to the adviser on the other end, before concluding with a soulful outro provided by young RnB star Khalid, who provides the refrain: “I wanna feel alive.”
According to the hotline, the organisation received a near 30 per cent increase in calls in the three weeks following the song’s release.
4. ‘Today’ by The Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
The dreamy nature of this power ballad disguises its darker subject matter. Written during bouts of panic attacks, singer Billy Corgan said the song was composed to remind himself to persevere and leave future worries behind.
“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” Today begins. “Can’t live for tomorrow. Tomorrow’s much too long.”
5. ‘Skyscraper’ by Demi Lovato (2011)
Written not long after Lovato checked herself into a US treatment facility, the poignant lyrics trace her recognition that it was time to seek help.
“Go on and try to tear me down,” the chorus states. “I will be rising from the ground, like a skyscraper.”
6. ‘Smile’ by Jay-Z featuring Gloria Carter (2017)
When Jay Z speaks, the streets listen.
And what they heard in this career highlight is not trademark braggadocio, but a sobering look at what lies beneath that confident exterior, which includes the revelation he was seeking therapy.
“In the shadows people see you as happy and free, because that’s what you want them to see,” Jay Z raps. “Living two lives, happy, but not free.”
7. ‘Head Above Water’ by Avril Lavigne (2018)
When the Canadian pop star returned after a six-year hiatus with this title track from a new album, many fans assumed her time away was spent unwinding after more than 15 years of recording and touring.
It turned out, however, Lavigne was engaged in a battle with Lyme disease. The rock ballad recalls the singer’s efforts to remain positive despite her worsening condition.
“My life is what I’m fighting for, can’t part the sea, can’t reach the shore,” she says. “And my voice becomes the driving force. I won’t let this pull me overboard.”
8. ‘You Still Believe in Me’ by The Beach Boys (1966)
“I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be,” Brian Wilson sings in one of his most heart-rending The Beach Boys compositions.
The song may be fashioned as an address to a spurned partner, but it also functions as Wilson’s love letter to himself.
Over swelling strings, harpsichords, clarinets and the lamenting notes of a piano, he accepts his fraying mental health with the resolve to be kinder to himself.
9. ‘24/7″ by Kehlani (2016)
Kehlani released this electro-pop single with lyrics gleaned from therapy sessions. More than the uplifting melodies, it’s her conversational lyrics about self-acceptance and resilience that hit home.
“It’s all fine to not think you’re fine,” she says. “Or have the wish to feel any better.”
10. ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM (1992)
Part of their masterful album Automatic for the People – a brooding song cycle about life and death – REM wanted to write a song for struggling teenagers.
As a result, Everybody Hurts is home to their most direct and heartfelt lyrics.
Over a rolling acoustic guitar, the song picks up steam with Michael Stipe imploring listeners to forge forward and seek support when faced with seemingly insurmountable setbacks.
“Don’t let yourself go, because everybody cries,” Stipe says, his voice quavering. “Everybody hurts sometimes.”
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By Jennifer Cheang, MHA Digital Marketing Manager
Sometimes we don’t have the right words to communicate how we’re feeling, and it can be frustrating trying to explain to someone exactly what is going on.
This is where music comes in.
There are countless studies that attribute positive health outcomes to listening to music – from easing physical pain to boosting our cognitive functions. Some mental health professionals use music therapy to treat conditions such as schizophrenia.
We asked MHA’s community about what songs helped them in their recovery, and here are some of their favorites:
- “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled
- “Beautiful U R” by Deborah Cox
- “Walk Away” by Bad Religion
- “Fighter” by Christina Aguilera
- “Cherish the Day” by Sade
- “Titanium” by David Guetta (Trigger Warning: Images of guns, language about shooting)
- “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips
- “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
- “Keep Ya Head Up” by Tupac
- “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons
Learning to play or playing an instrument can also help you focus on something other than your thoughts and improve overall functioning.
In 2017, our Annual Conference explored how music and other types of alternative therapy methods can help manage and treat symptoms of mental illness. You can check out some of those presentations here.
Our partners at the You Rock Foundation know that music saves lives and promote music as a form of recovery. They also share the stories of musicians living with mental health conditions, such as Corey Taylor from Slipknot. You can learn more about their work here.
Music is an integral part of the human experience and can be effective for individuals who cannot otherwise express their feelings. It can also evoke emotion, help regain memories, stimulate new neural connections and active attention.
How has music affected your mental health?
Art often becomes a way to express one’s feelings. Some songs are happy, some dramatic, some are hopeful. However, it is often these songs that are deeply sad, depressing and even disturbing that make us tune to our darkest emotions. It is completely normal for any human to feel sad, lonely and even depressed from time to time. Hopefully, these songs help you tune to your emotions and discover, what is going on inside and how to move forward.
Music can alleviate some of the worst feelings and help refresh your thinking. If you feel that you cannot handle it on your own, or that you are feeling depressed for a long time, please reach out for help. Start by seeing your doctor, they know how to help. If you are feeling suicidal right now, please call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 in America. There are also other resources for mental illness in America, the UK and other countries. A quick Google search for ‘mental health help’ and similar will put you on the right path.
That said, here are some relatable songs about metal illness and mental health recovery.
Lana Del Rey – Summertime Sadness (2012)
Summertime Sadness is a nostalgic song of better times that our minds tend to go to when we feel down. It is a sad summer because just a few summers ago a character of Lana Del Ray’s song was enjoying her life with a loved one, who is no longer with her. It is unclear who exactly she refers to, and some fans speculated that the song is not about a romantic relationship but a friendship that is now gone.
Pink Floyd – Shine On You Crazy Diamond (1975)
Wish You Were Here is Pink Floyd’s ninth album, and the phrase in the titles of both the album and this song are addressed to a specific person: Syd Barrett, the band’s former lead guitarist, who had to leave the band just on the verge of their big success because of his mental illness and drug abuse.
The change in line-up affected Pink Floyd’s theme: all their works post-Barrett were centered around mental health issues in one way or another: insanity, loneliness, depression, isolation, drug abuse – with whole albums like Wish You Were Here and The Wall being centered around mental health problems.
The Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black (1966)
The Rolling Stones do not strike an average listener as a band with daunting themes but Paint It, Black is literally one of their darkest songs. The character of the song tells a story of his isolation from the rest of the world, having to turn his eyes away because of the darkness in his soul. The world is too bright for him, the red door is too cheerful. He only wants to see black color, and he even wants to paint the sky.
Shawn Mendes – In My Blood (2018)
This song, like many others on this list, is autobiographical. Shawn Mendes describes so perfectly, what a person with mental illness can feel: emotional emptiness, insecurity, unwanted and useless advice, loneliness. The music accentuates the theme perfectly with rising tension, more instruments coming and Mendes’s vocal part rising throughout the song from quiet and low to larger, louder and higher.
However, it is the main conclusion that is the most important here. It can often feel like giving up is the easiest way. But it is not in our blood. No matter how hard it can be, it can always get better.
Green Day – Boulevard of Broken Dreams (2004)
As in many songs in this list, the title says a lot. A character of Billie Joe Armstrong walks the same road over and over. He is alone, the road leads nowhere but he keeps on walking because that is the only road he knows – there is nothing else for him.
The music mirrors the lyrics. It uses a series of weaker resolutions, so the music just keeps on walking nowhere, it is lost. Until the iconic ending that changes the key so dramatically that it confuses us. A non-typical six-bar loop makes us lost – we do not know where the start anymore, and more importantly – we cannot understand where the end is. There is no end. The Boulevard of Broken Dreams never ends, we just have to keep on walking.
Eminem – Stan (2000)
This list would not be complete without Stan, an iconic and truly disturbing song by Eminem. It features Eminem’s fan, who becomes so obsessed with his idol that he ends in psychosis, full of anger and hatred. The text of the song is so disturbing that it had to be censored before being published on television.
However, there is one more side to this song that is rarely mentioned. A disturbed mind can imagine things that are not there and act based on a worldview that is not real. The last verse of this song is there for a reason: there was no disdain for Stan. Slim was just busy and had no time to answer, and a terrible tragedy featured in the song was for nothing.
Nirvana – Pennyroyal Tea (1993)
Pennyroyal tea was used in old times, when medical services were not up to modern standards, to abort the unwanted pregnancy, and has a bad effect on the overall health of a person who drinks it because of its toxicity in large doses. In Kurt Cobain’s world, he drinks pennyroyal tea to kill a part of his soul. It made him feel like he wanted to: weak and anemic.
The text is very short but carries a lot of meaning. Cobain was deeply depressed but also in constant chronic pain from multiple health problems. Some drugs helped him ease the physical pain but emotional pain felt like too much to carry, so cutting a part of his soul felt like a good decision.
Tears for Fears – Mad World (1983)
Another iconic tune on this list, Mad World expresses the author’s tiredness of the world around him, where people running somewhere endlessly and aimlessly while being unsatisfied with their lives. The insane life around the character is so well accentuated by music. The upbeat and lively rhythm does not feel to be in sync with lyrics, which is exactly what Tears for Fears wanted to show – the character of the song does not belong in this Mad World.
Rihanna – Disturbia (2007)
If some artists try to cover their feeling in fancy words, Rihanna is being very straightforward about what her character is going through. These feelings are very familiar for people, who struggle with depression: emotional and physical burnout, lack of energy, lack of motivation, and a feeling that disease controls your life.
But what Rihanna adds to this can be very hard to accept – be wise about your condition now, because it can drive your thoughts to the point, when these are no longer your thoughts.
Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure (1981)
David Bowie and Freddie Mercury had extremely different voices and use of their talents, and Under Pressure is the highlight of this difference in singing, where two singers doubled down on their abilities.
Bowie’s character feels hopeless and crushed by life, and he conveys this feeling by using a very limited range of notes. Mercury counteracts the main theme – he wants to fly high, ascend from all the troubles of this world into a new self, and uses all his abilities to widen the song and our perception of reality – life can be hard now but there is always hope.
The Doors – People Are Strange (1967)
Loneliness is mind-twisting and self-perpetuating. Chronically lonely people feel so distant from the rest of the world that they start to see what is not there. They feel disdain and disgust coming from others, even when it is not there. That is what Jim Morrison was experiencing and what he conveyed by this song. When you are lonely, a stranger to others, people look ugly and women seem wicked.
Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
Most characters on this list express what they feel: depression, anxiety, grief. Simon & Garfunkel went on the other side and sang a song from a person, who tries to help and comfort the one, who is struggling. Those, who are suffering from a mental illness, can be left alone in their fight. Paul Simon offers his help, to wipe tears of despair, be a friend in need, become a bridge over these hard times.
Florence and the Machine – Shake It Out (2011)
Our present is so often dictated by our past if we like it or not. Florence Welch, the lead singer for Florence + the Machine, knows it all too well – she was struggling with mental issues in her teens. However, the message of this song differs from many others on this list. It is freeing, relaxing. Stop dragging this horse, get rid of your emotional baggage, shake it all out!
R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts (1992)
Everyone can catch a blue sometimes, it is normal to feel sad and even lonely sometimes. And from time to time, it feels that everything is so wrong that we can feel ready to give up. That is what Michael Stipe, the vocalist for R.E.M. tries to tell us – it can feel that there is nothing ahead but just stop for a minute, let yourself be sad for a second before you move forward. Even if it feels that everything is lost – it is not the end. Don’t give up.
Johnny Cash – Hurt (2002)
Later stages of Johnny Cash’s career saw a lot of dark moments in his lyrics but hardly anything can beat Hurt. The only thing that is left for the character to feel is pain when he hurts himself. The only thing that he leaves behind is the empire of dirt. The only thing he wants is to start over a million miles away from where he is now.
Hurt is not Cash’s song, it was written by Nine Inch Nail and Cash’s cover was unexpected, to say the least. But it turned out to be so iconic that nobody can remember now, whose song it was originally. The music video added to that effect. It turned out to be so dark that even the last shot of Cash closing the lid on his piano happened to be somewhat prophetic – Hurt was the last single released by Johnny Cash, he died a few months later.
The Beatles – Help! (1965)
The title of this iconic song is self-explanatory – the character of Help! is shouting for help. A lesser-known fact that this song by John Lennon is autobiographical – that is his cry for help. Later in an interview, he said that the song was a response to The Beatles’ quick and head-spinning rise to fame, which was too much to handle. Life has changed in so many ways, and Lennon needs help. He is crying for help.
Ariana Grande – Breathin (2018)
Anxiety disorders can get a hold of us very fast. Many of us have been through that, when the room feels like a rollercoaster, the head is spinning and we forget how to do the most basic thing that all humans do – breathe. That is what Ariana Grande very rightfully advises – start breathing. Just breathe, ground yourself in the present. Everything else can wait.
Ed Sheeran – Save Myself (2017)
The modern world demands so much of us: do your best at work, be the best version of yourself, always smile. However, always being good for others, that ensures only one thing: self-destruction accompanied by alcohol and pills. In his cheerful manner, Ed Sheeran reminds us – we have only one life and only one body. Do yourself a favor – take a day off and take care of yourself.
Green Day – Wake Me Up When September Ends (2004)
Here is yet another song of American Idiot – one of the most iconic albums of the 2000s. Wake Me Up When September Ends is a bit unique on this list because it is a song about a loss of a loved one. The music video for this song keeps up the main theme of the album – political protest and features a couple that is broken by the Iraq War. However, this song is much deeper than just that.
Billie Joe Armstrong wrote this song when the Iraq War had not happened yet. When Armstrong was only ten, his father died from cancer. The singer himself described writing this song as having a therapeutic effect, helping him express his grief and loss. 20 years later it found a new meaning on American Idiot.
The Fray – How To Save A Life (2005)
This is a unique song on this list because it is written not from the side of a person, who was struggling with a mental illness but the one, who was trying to help. The Fray’s lead singer Isaac Slade was working with a teenager with drug addiction. In this song, he puts his own despair in an attempt to help the kid but does not know how. He would stay up all night, only if he knew what to do. Only if he knew how to save that life from pain and addiction.
The Who – Behind Blue Eyes (1971)
Usually, stories highlight a character, who wants to improve and become better. Behind Blue Eyes features a different character. He does not want to become better – he wants to become worse, the most horrible and dark version of himself. The pain inside is too hard to bear for a good person, and “no one knows what it’s like.” There is only one way – to become evil. But that does not help, being evil always ends the same – in isolation.
Radiohead – Creep (1992)
It can often feel that we do not matter, that we are too strange for this world and nobody gets us. That is the feeling of the iconic song Creep by Radiohead. “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” has become a slogan for many teenagers of the 1990s, who felt that they do not belong in this old world, and the only sight that they see is people running away from them leaving them alone and being more and more assured in one fact – they are creeps.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Under The Bridge (1991)
Under The Bridge is a two-faced song – it is a song about love but also about the despair that a character feels about this love. This love is the city of Los Angeles, and that is the only relationship that was left for Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer for Red Hot Chili Peppers. His closest friend, Hillel Slovak, guitarist, lost his life because of the heroin addiction, and Kiedis was left alone – his only friend now is the City of Los Angeles.
Slipknot – Snuff (2008)
If some artists devote the entire albums to mental health issues, for Slipknot that topic is central for their entire craft with songs like All Hope Is Gone, I Am Hated or The Devil In I – pick any. However, among all the bombarding sounds of extreme guitar distortion and three drummers, there is one song that surely stands out – a melodic and acoustic but daunting Snuff.
A character is absolutely empty. He is full of grief and despair for himself, there is nothing ahead, and things will get only worse. Even if there is hope, he does not want to change because the worst happened to him already – he does not care. The death of hope has already happened.
System of a Down – Lonely Day (2005)
It is not just a lonely day, it is not even the loneliest day. In the words of Daron Malakian, it is “the most loneliest day” that Serj Tankian is singing about. The kind of day that should not even exist, that should be banned. Musicians tend to break the rules of language to express what they feel. In this case, it is the loneliness that is crushing, ever-existing and unescapable.
Paramore – Fake Happy (2017)
The title of this song is also quite self-explanatory. People, who struggle with depression, can feel the pressure to seem happy even if they are going through the worst days of their lives. Mental illnesses still carry the unnecessary and damaging stigma, and for some, appearing “fake happy” can the only way to keep on communicating with others even for the cost of damaging their own feelings.
Pearl Jam – Jeremy (1991)
Jeremy tells two related stories in one song: one of a teenager named Jeremy, who shot himself in front of his class, and the vocalist Eddie Vedder, who sees himself as a cause for his tragedy. School violence is often connected to bullying. Instead of expressing his feelings of depression, Jeremy is sort of a confession, where Vedder admits his guilt for bullying his classmates.
The Notorious B.I.G. – Suicidal Thoughts (1994)
Like Stan, this song might be the most disturbing song on this list. The Notorious B.I.G. feels everything that a person in severe depression can feel: anxiety, loneliness, guilt, feeling unloved that stems from childhood. He shouts all these thoughts at his friend on the phone before doing one last final thing that ends the album Ready to Die.
Tupac – So Many Tears (1995)
The album Me Against the World is full of hints to the untimely death of the main character but surely, So Many Tears is the highlight of this theme. Tupac Shakur had a very complicated and painful childhood on the streets, being fully left to himself. Even being elevated to the icon of hip hop and gangsta rap, he found it very hard to escape his demons.
Kendrick Lamar – u (2015)
Stemming off another Tupac’s masterpiece, Kendrick Lamar recorded “u” at the height of his amazing career. However, that was exactly what he wanted to express in his new song: you can climb and reach the top, but you can never run from yourself. Even being successful and famous does not guarantee happiness. In fact, for Kendrick, it worked exactly vice versa, and that is the theme of “u”.
Logic, Alessia Cara & Khalid – 1-800-273-8255 (2017)
Even with all the wonderful and truly ingenious songs, this one might be the most useful and handy. 1-800-273-8255 is the suicide prevention hotline in the United States. It is okay to feel suicidal, and the suicide prevention hotline does its best to take off the stigma from this feeling. The lyrics mirror that struggle. The character of the song wants to end things once and for all, and does the best decision he can – decides to tell another person why.
Metallica – Welcome Home (Sanitarium) (1986)
The entire Master of Puppets album is centered around mental health and drug abuse, the title of the album refers to drugs that have full control over their users. Welcome Home (Sanitarium) is the conversation inside the head of a mental institution patient, where today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be just the same. Nothing changes and nothing will. There is no escape but one – the most tragic.
Sia – Breathe Me (2004)
Mental health issues can become self-perpetuating. Emotional pain can be harder to bear than physical one, and some people find the way out is self-damaging. Physical pain can silence emotions but in the end, it will end in more pain, suffering and guilt. There is no one else to blame – that is Sia’s message from this song. Please don’t hurt yourself.
Hank Williams – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (1949)
Time for a little classic country. Hank Williams’s ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ is the oldest song on this list, and definitely proves that loneliness and depression are not the inventions of Millenials. Williams sings about his tumultuous relationship with his wife, and how these troubles make him feel absolutely alone and losing all the will to live.
Bruce Springsteen – This Depression (2012)
Again, it is normal to feel lonely, hopeless, and even depressed sometimes. But sometimes, one can feel so lonely like never before. Bruce Springsteen conveys this feeling best when slight blue can shift into a full-on depression when it feels that all hope is gone, all prayers are for nothing, and the only thing he needs is that one person he can trust the most.
John Mayer – Gravity (2006)
It is even surprising that there is only one song in 6/8 time on this list (music connoisseurs will understand.) Absolutely brilliant guitarist and songwriter John Mayer follows the best tradition of weeping blues standards to tell us how hard it can be to go forward when all odds seem to be against us. Even gravity works against us, although, to think about it… Gravity is always the same, maybe something else has changed that is in our control?
Julia Michaels and Selena Gomez – Anxiety (2019)
Loneliness and depression are irrational. We suffer so much because we cannot seem to connect with anyone. And yet there are people around us, who still care, but the only response of our brains is to send them further away. Depression is a very lonely disease and it is hard for people without it to understand those, who suffer. Julia Michaels and Selena Gomez perfectly put these feelings into their text for Anxiety.
Muse – The Dark Side (2018)
It can feel scary to let someone else inside your thoughts, it might even seem that your thoughts will only scare people away from you. That is Matthew Bellamy’s character rationale for tuning to his dark side. He does not want to be better, he wants to be evil and dark. That is the only way for him to set free.
Joy Division – New Dawn Fades (1979)
This list would be incomplete without one more iconic band. That is, of course, Joy Division and their vocalist Ian Curtis with his extraordinary droning and deeply disturbing vocals. The entire short career of Curtis and Joy Division is centered around a deeply troubling theme that goes even beyond depression: extreme alienation and desolation of a person. It would be fair to pick any song from Unknown Pleasures but perhaps New Dawn Fades fits this list the best.
The Beach Boys – I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (1966)
The Beach Boys do not exactly strike us ones who might sing about depression. However, one of their most-known songs carries the simple message in its title: not everybody fits into the modern world, neither now in the 2020s, not back then, in 1965. The song is somewhat autobiographical of Brian Wilson’s experience. As a free musician, he was surely finding it hard to fit into the strict society. And not only him, as we learned later that decade.
Lamb of God – 512 (2015)
512 is the number of a cell, where Randy Blythe, a lead vocalist for Lamb of God, was held before his manslaughter trial. The tragedy happened at the band’s concert in Prague when Blythe pushed Danial Nosek, the attending fan, off the stage and Nosek died from a head injury. Blythe was later arrested and held under supervision because of depression. This is when he wrote lyrics for this song.
The text is quite graphic and describes the extreme feeling of guilt for what happened. It seems that not one life ended as a result of this incident but two: both Nosek’s and Blythe’s too.
Tops Songs About Mental Illness, Final Thoughts
There you go, the best songs to describe mental health and illness. When you’ve a mental illness it can be easy to think no one understands what you’re going through. But there are others that have been through the same thing. And even if you can’t always talk to them personally, sometimes listening to a related song can help you in some way.
If you suffer from metal illness, be sure to get help in America, UK, or wherever you live.
P.S. Remember though, none of what you’ve learned will matter if you don’t know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career’ ebook emailed directly to you!