Song Lyrics Offer Mixed Messages About Mental Illness

Kimya Dawson

"The Competition", by Kimya Dawson, presents a positive message about dealing with depression.

Mikayla Kudron, A&E Editor

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In a world where mental illness is becoming rapidly less stigmatized, there is a fine line between accepting and romanticizing mental illness. Many songs revolving around mental health portray illnesses as glamorous or fun. The problem with this mentality is that it discourages people struggling with their mental health from getting the help they need and adds to the misconceptions surrounding mental illness..

Many songwriters, in a quest to normalize mental illness and relate to their audience, have instead made mental illness seem desirable. 

One way in which artists romanticize mental illness is through making it seem desirable in a partner. This is apparent in “Daddy Issues” by The Neighborhood:

And if you were my little girl

I’d do whatever I could do

I’d run away and hide with you

I love that you got daddy issues

These lyrics present “daddy issues”, most likely representing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a desirable trait in a romantic partner. This is damaging because it discourages healthy coping mechanisms that diminish the effects of mental illness, and promotes unhealthy coping methods (I’d run away and hide with you) as being romantic. The lyrics make it sound as though running away from your problems is a fun, romantic adventure rather than a damaging strategy for dealing with trauma. Portraying mental illness this way also supports unhealthy relationship ideals. Songs like this promote complete dependence on your partner, which can often lead to abusive or otherwise unhealthy romantic relationships. 

One of the most common ways musicians glorify mental illness is by representing serious issues with illusions of glamour, fun, and romance. For example, in her song “Habits” Tove Lo writes:

I gotta stay high all the time

Staying in my play pretend

Where the fun ain’t got no end

The song is about coping with heartbreak and resulting depression, and lyrics such as these send the wrong message. These lyrics promote the idea that numbing your feelings by turning to drugs is a coping mechanism and lead to a fun and exciting lifestyle. In reality, this behavior actually causes far more harm than good. Listeners struggling with depression or heartbreak may hear songs such as this one and be under the impression that drugs and deflection are the answers to their problems.

Most artists write songs involving mental illness to raise awareness and acceptance, and some songs successfully do just that. ”Anxiety” by Julia Michaels and Selena Gomez explains what life is like for someone struggling with anxiety and depression. The song describes the difficulty of maintaining social relationships, overthinking, feeling guilty, and other realistic manifestations of mental illness.

Another song that provides a more accurate portrayal of living with mental illness is “The Competition” by Kimya Dawson.

And sometimes I’d rise to the challenge

But other times I’d feel so bad that I could not get out of bed

And on the days I stayed in bed I sang and sang and sang

About how crappy I felt not realizing how many other people would relate

Now people send me emails that say thanks for saying the things they didn’t know how to say

And the people in my head still visit me sometimes

And they bring all of their friends but I don’t mind

The song is about the singer’s experience with depression and self doubt. This song provides a great representation of mental illness because it realistically describes the experience of living with depression and promotes the idea of turning to healthy coping mechanisms such as, in this case, singing and songwriting. The lyrics are also realistic because they show that dealing with mental illness is not always linear, as the singer has good and bad days. It also is both optimistic and realistic, which is a great mindset. The singer also promotes activism in the song as she describes the rewarding experience of sharing her struggle with mental illness.

Music is a wonderful way to express creativity and cope with intense emotion, making it a great platform for spreading mental illness awareness. Hearing your favorite celebrities sing about their struggles can help you feel understood and less alone in the world. Singers and songwriters should absolutely continue to use their influence to destigmatize mental health, but need to be mindful that they do not represent illness inappropriately.