If you listen to music for long enough, all of the songs can start to kind of of blend together. That is, until something hits you and you suddenly feel every single lyric aligns directly with what’s going on in your life right now. At least that’s what happened to me on my way home from therapy. I have depression and after getting hit in the heart by a song that perfectly explained the way I feel, I slowly began to uncover all of these songs that were really about mental illness when most people probably don’t even realize it. How on earth was I missing it this whole time?
Having depression or any other mental illness isn’t the easiest thing in the world to talk about: it affects your brain – where everything that makes you who you are is located – and it’s hard to talk about your experience when it’s by and large perceived as self-indulgent, fake, or *eye roll* “all in your head” (the irony is not lost on me). Depression, addiction, bi-polar disorder, borderline, etc. are all real conditions that people are diagnosed with and are therefore part of the human experience. So why the nasty judgement and false perceptions?
It’s so hard to talk about, apparently, that artists sometimes have to hide the meaning of songs behind pop beats and catchy melodies. Taking a closer look at the lyrics and artist interviews about what inspired these songs will show you that, yes, that song is for sure about depression, and no, you’re not just making stuff up or reading a little too into it. To be honest, everyone takes songs they hear and adapts them to be about what we’re going through, but these songs were specially built to be about mental illness, recovery, and all of the highs and lows in between. You may be surprised to know these 10 songs are about mental illness, but I just think that makes them even better.
1. “Disturbia” by Rihanna
Classic dance your ass off throwback hit, but take a look at these lyrics: “It’s a thief in the night/To come and grab you/It can creep up inside you/And consume you/A disease of the mind/It can control you/It’s too close for comfort.” Hello! In fact, all of the lyrics follow the same theme. Of course, the song is called Disturbia, so it’s no surprise the song *isn’t* bright and peppy. It is, however, made infinitely more unsettling when you realize that Chris Brown wrote the song for Rihanna before he was arrested for physically abusing her and was released as a single after the fallout. Ooph. That’s rough.
2. “Marilyn Monroe” by Nicki Minaj
Marilyn Monroe famously dealt with a host of maladies and personal family history that made her a more complicated, admittedly less glamorous version of her performance persona she’s so well known for. Nicki Minaj compares her struggles with Marilyn’s by echoing “Is this is how Marilyn felt” and referencing her quotes she’s so well known for. Nicki is perceived as being blessed and lucky, like Marilyn, but the lyrics talk about dealing with some real life upsets like Marilyn. She empathizes with her, maybe not in her specific diagnoses, but definitely in her public persona being wildly different than the real person who’s left dealing with personal baggage.
3. “The A Team” by Ed Sheeran
This song was reportedly written after a performance Ed Sheeran gave at a homeless shelter. In talking with some of the people there, he was made aware of their struggles and hardships, particularly with drugs and trying to escape the world of prostitution and human trafficking. The A Team he is referring to is not a level of sports, but refers to using “Class A drugs.” The lyrics are sensitive and introspective, so they can easily be interpreted as a love song, but since releasing the single, Sheeran has performed in benefit for One25, an organization in the UK that helps advocate for the vulnerable women he sings about.
4. “Warrior” by Demi Lovato
It’s no secret that Demi Lovato is in recovery from an eating disorder and bipolar depression, partially because she advocates for recovery so hard and writes these epic anthems for those who are dealing with similar struggles. “Warrior,” is said to be a sequel to “Skyscraper.” She’s unabashed and covered in battle wounds, like a warrior, and she’s made stronger for having come out on the other side of it: “I’ve got shame, I’ve got scars/That I will never show/I’m a survivor/In more ways than you know.” This is another scream-sing while you’re alone song and it’s super cathartic.
5. “Save Your Goodbye” by Mike Posner
I get it – these lyrics could definitely be about a break up – BUT Mike Posner told Dose.ca in an interview that this song was about his struggles with depression. He said: “I love tricking kids into listening to stuff like that. It’s like you’re reading Catcher in the Rye but you don’t know it.” Using the narrative of a love song, Mike Posner accurately describes depression and mental illness like an awful significant other you need to break up with. The lyrics at the end about it being his time to shine? About it being hard to see straight, how it’s everywhere he goes, and the fact that it goes “on and on and on”? This song is for sure about depression.
6. “A Better Son/Daughter” by Rilo Kiley
If you’re late to the Rilo Kiley party: welcome. This song is one of my favorites because the lyrics are so specific. The highs are really high, the lows are low (“And sometimes when you’re on, you’re really fucking on/And your friends they sing along and they love you/But the lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap/And it teases you for weeks in it’s absence.” The song even musically reflects the joy and despair of experiencing such mental shifts. The drums at the end give the song a real anthem-like feel and I agree. This is my anthem and I love it.
7. “People Are Strange” by The Doors
Allegedly, Jim Morrison wrote this song after an epiphany he had on a hike: people are strange when your brain alienates them from you, hence the famous, “people are strange when you’re a stranger.” Sometimes when you’re overtaken by an episode, human interaction becomes weird, strained, or even unbearable. You feel strange, like you don’t belong, and everyone knows it. This song gets it right and gets it done very simply and eloquently.
8. “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynrd
This song was written after a few band members were struggling to stay sober. Most people only know the line “Oooh, that smell, can’t you smell that smell” but the song continues to explain, “the smell of death that surrounds you.” There are very real life and death consequences when you deal with drug and alcohol addiction. The lesser known verses get wildly specific with dealing with drugs and the need to get and stay sober: “Now they call you Prince Charming/Can’t speak a word when you’re full of ‘ludes/Say you’ll be alright come tomorrow/But tomorrow might not be here for you (yeah you).”
9. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day
Everybody, stop trolling Green Day on twitter on October 1st. When Billie Jo Armstrong was 10, his dad died on September 1st, so the whole month was just a big, long, suck. He wants the month of September to end – get it? Depression can get triggered by any number of events, and the loss of a parent is certainly one of the bigger ones. Grief and depression can seem never ending and you’re just looking for a light at the end of the tunnel and not to be reminded of what you lost or are currently losing every time a triggering date rolls around on the calendar again. Like I said, maybe don’t harass members of the band on October 1, it’s mean.
10. “I Wanna Get Better” by Bleachers
The music video takes place in a series of therapy sessions, for crying out loud. If you wish recovery was more of a rock anthem, this song is for you. This song is for scream singing in your car, by yourself, when you need to shake all the shit off of you and finally get better. The lyrics strike me as being strongly about recovery but also regretting all the time spent in the past feeling awful, chasing the wrong thing, being afraid, and not getting help. This is the anthem for your “I need help” epiphany and it totally rocks.
Which one of these songs is your favorite? What did we miss? Let us know in the comments.