Language often fails us when it comes to describing mental illness. The range and intensity of conditions such as anxiety and depression can’t always be captured in words. And it can be hard to communicate your thoughts and needs to others — or even yourself — in a world that lacks a vocabulary for mental pain and wellness.
Fortunately, where words fall short, music can often help bridge the gap. Many artists understand intimately what it’s like to live with a mental health condition, and have done their best to communicate that experience through song.
Music written from a mental health perspective can help you articulate experiences for which there are no words. It can distract you or lift your spirits in difficult times. And it can serve as a powerful reminder that no matter what you’re going through, you’re not alone.
Below, we’ve put together a list of 16 songs by artists who live with a mental health condition. What songs help you through tough times? Let us know in the comments.
Here are 16 songs about mental illness:
1. “Breathe Me” by Sia
Sia wrote her breakout song, “Breathe Me,” the night she attempted suicide in 2004. A close friend had died unexpectedly some time ago — “my first big loss, you know?” she told Rolling Stone — and Sia had been grappling with addiction and suicidal thoughts for months after.
Fortunately, she survived the attempt. The next time she seriously contemplated ending her life, a friend reached out to her. As she pressed her phone to her cheek and heard her friend’s voice, Sia realized she might still have something to live for.
“In that moment, I thought, ‘There’s a world out there and I’m not a part of it. But I might like to be,’” she said.
2. “Skyscraper” by Demi Lovato
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As she was recording “Skyscraper” in 2011, Demi Lovato sat “doubled over, just in pain,” according to MTV. She was living with bipolar disorder and bulimia. She was self-harming and self-medicating. She had been struggling with suicidal thoughts since she was 7 years old. And she had never breathed a word about it to anyone.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is kind of my cry for help’ back then, because I hadn’t spoken to anyone about these issues,” she told Cosmopolitan.
Every image in the music video is symbolic of something. She unwinds a black cloth from around her shoulders to lift away “the toxicity that took over my mind for so long, that oozed out of every pore that I had.” She walks on glass, showing her commitment to continuing on in spite of the pain it will cause her.
Lovato said the song represents everything she wants people to learn from her story: the power of “getting help and rising above.”
3. “Anxiety” by Julia Michaels (feat. Selena Gomez)
Julia Michaels started having anxiety when she was 18 years old.
“I thought I was dying,” she wrote for Glamour. “Most days I couldn’t breathe or leave the fetal position.”
Anxiety pervades the way that Michaels lives and performs. So it makes sense that anxiety should color her hit song, “Issues,” and later inspire “Anxiety,” a song she created with Selena Gomez about living with mental illness. In the song, released in 2019, Michaels shares her experiences with anxiety, from the terrifying to the everyday. The duo wanted to validate others who struggle with anxiety.
“[We] liked the idea of doing a song together where we’re talking about our relationship with anxiety,” Michaels told Billboard. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, we have anxiety, but we’re OK with it.’”
4. “Gasoline” by Halsey
Halsey was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after trying to take her own life at age 17. Since receiving her diagnosis, Halsey has spoken out against the often-romanticized view of bipolar disorder people have.
“It’s not all painting at four o’ clock in the morning and road trips and fucking great things,” she told Elle. “Sometimes it’s throwing things and, like, getting hurt.”
In “Gasoline,” a single on her 2015 album “Badlands,” Halsey sets her often painful experiences with bipolar disorder to pulsing, electric sound. She sings of buying a “hundred dollar bottle of champagne” only to pour it down the drain, sopping up the mess with her water bill. She speaks of the sidelong glances she gets from strangers on the train, of whispers that she “shouldn’t waste her pretty face.” She relates the feeling of being a “fucking hurricane,” of being “high enough” without any drug.
“Are you deranged like me? Are you strange like me?” she sings. “I think there’s a flaw in my code… My heart is gold and my hands are cold.”
5. “____45_____” by Bon Iver
A few years after the release of his sophomore album, “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” Justin Vernon — the band’s founder and lead singer — retreated to the Greek island of Santorini to “go into myself a little bit,” he told the Guardian. He was experiencing “mental stuff,” he said, and needed to be alone for a while.
The fifth day into his visit to the island, he had a panic attack. “It was like: ‘Oh my God, my chest is caving in, what the fuck is going on?’” he said.
He drifted from one empty off-season hotel to the next, unable to shake the “completely depressing” feeling that hounded him. Later, he would return to the States, receive a depression diagnosis and begin treatment.
While on the island, he wrote. His album, “22, A Million,” released in 2016, is jarring, a far cry from the sweet, love-lorn notes of his earlier work. It’s tinged with the uncertainty he felt during his lost days on Santorini, an uncertainty that had suddenly become dangerous. In “____45_____,” Vernon speaks of being “carved in fire… caught in fire,” an analogy he may be using to describe his anxiety.
6. “Quiet” by MILCK
Connie Lim, better known as MILCK, is a survivor of sexual assault, anorexia and depression. Her song, “Quiet,” is a powerful anthem about finding strength in the wake of trauma.
As the song opens, Lim speaks softly of the messages she absorbed as a young girl — “put on your face, know your place, shut up and smile,” she sings. Gradually, a shift occurs in the song. Lim begins to say, “I can’t keep quiet,” testing the words in her mouth, and repeats it again and again.
It took Lim years to speak openly about what happened to her. She told USA Today that she often felt triggered from the pain of re-telling her story. Even after releasing “Quiet,” Lim continued to struggle with the courage she sets forth in the song.
“‘Quiet’ was a song that I wasn’t fully yet. But as I keep singing the song, I keep becoming more of it,” she said.
7. “breathin’” by Ariana Grande
The day she sat down to write her chart-topping single “breathin,'” her anxiety was so bad she could hardly breathe.
“We were in the studio, we were writing and I was like, ‘Ugh, I can’t breathe,’” she told Jimmy Fallon. Her writers, however, pressed her to come up with a song, so she wrote about the only thing she could think about at the time.
“‘breathin’ is about breathing… like, when you’re anxious,” she said. “You know, when you can’t get a full breath? It’s like the worst feeling in the whole world.”
8. “The Last” by Agust D (also known as Suga)
Suga, lead rapper for the K-pop band BTS, once told Billboard, “Everyone in the world is lonely and everyone is sad… I hope we [BTS] can create an environment where we can ask for help, and say things are hard when they’re hard, and say we miss someone when we miss them.”
In this interview Suga was referring to Jonghyun, a member of another popular K-pop band called SHINee, who had just died by suicide. Those who knew him — including Suga — were devastated by the loss. Suga identified with Jonghyun’s struggle in part because he had been there himself.
In “The Last,” Suga raps about living with OCD, depression and social anxiety. He raps about a trip to the psych ward with his baffled parents and of a day he lay curled in the bathroom, hiding “because [he] was scared of people.” In speaking openly about his struggles in his music, he hopes to make it easier for others to seek help when they need it.
9. “Breaking Down” by Florence + the Machine
Though her song, “Breaking Down,” sounds upbeat, Florence Welch shared in an interview with the LA Times the song is actually about depression. In the song, she likens depression to what it was like to experience fear in childhood.
“[‘Breaking Down’] was one of those songs that I just started humming and then the words came out,” she said. “These images of fear that you have as a child, something in the room, something for a child to fear, and then as an adult, that being there too as a creeping depression. It’s something quite sinister, but also something quite familiar.”
It’s common to feel like depression is too close for comfort — something that feels like it’s part of you. This is a theme that continues throughout the song.
“All alone, it was always there you see,” she sings in the song. “Even on my own, it was always standing next to me… I’ve always known there was something to be frightened of.”
10. “Unwell” by Matchbox Twenty
Rob Thomas, the lead singer of Matchbox 20, had his first panic attack soon after his mother died. “The first time, I thought it was a heart attack,” he told Rolling Stone. His anxiety was exacerbated by the public life his career demanded of him.
“You’d do things where you’re out and amongst, and I was never really comfortable,” he wrote for Genius. In spite of the overwhelming success of his albums, he felt constantly “unsure” of himself and his surroundings.
For Thomas, “Unwell” was the beginning of a long reckoning with his anxiety and insecurities — one he hopes will lead to feeling confident and “comfortable in my own skin.”
It’s a song, he says, for people who are “messed up and feel alone like that. We all feel a little messed up sometimes… you’re not alone.”
11. “Something Vague” by Bright Eyes
“[Depression] is something I’ve always struggled with,” Conor Oberst, also known as Bright Eyes, told blogger Mariko Sakamoto. His song, “Something Vague,” presents the listener with a world that is wispy and insubstantial.
In the song, Oberst describes feeling “not really sure what you’re doing this for,” of doing things for no other reason than to “fill up the days / A few more hours.” He’s listless, dreaming nightly of hanging suspended in midair “with nothing holding me,” picked over by the “starving” eyes of strangers. As the song draws to a close, he wonders aloud: “Is this death really you? / Do these dreams have any meaning?”
Emma Garland, a assistant editor for VICE UK, says that the song captures her experience of depression perfectly. “It speaks to the extremely boring and incredibly lifeless effect of depression that sucks all purpose out of reality,” she wrote. “Depression will always arrive formless and heavy.”
12. “Happy” by P!nk
In “Happy,” P!nk expresses a deep-seated unhappiness and doubts her own worth. “Can somebody find me a pill to make me unafraid of me?” she sings.
In the song, she fervently rejects the idea of seeking therapy, insisting that she should self-medicate instead: “It’s easier than healing.” P!nk wonders, at intervals, whether her resistance to getting help springs from a deep-seated fear of change, or even of happiness itself. “I’m scared of being somebody new,” she sings. “Every time I try I always stop me.”
P!nk’s song was likely inspired by her mental health struggles in real life. “I’ve been depressed, I have anxiety,” she shared on “Today”. “I overthink everything.” She manages her anxiety by going to therapy and surrounding herself with people who understand her needs. “I think talking about it is the most important thing.”
13. “Heavy” by Linkin Park (feat. Kiiara)
Chester Bennington, frontman of Linkin Park, died by suicide on July 20th, 2017. On February 16th of the same year, he released one of his last singles, “Heavy.” In the song, Bennington and vocalist Kiiara sang of the difficulties that can come with staying alive day-to-day. “I’m holding on,” the song goes. “Why is everything so heavy?”
In “Heavy,” Bennington sings of a mind at war with itself. “I don’t like my mind right now,” he begins. “Stacking up problems that are so unnecessary.” He wishes he could “slow down” the pace of things, but can’t allow himself to let go: “there’s comfort in the panic,” he sings.
Linkin Park bassist Dave Farell paid tribute to Bennington in the wake of his death, writing, “He was an enthusiastic, playful father, an honest, passionate musician, and a loyal friend,” according to People.
If you’re struggling, please know that you are not alone. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
14. “A Better Son/Daughter” by Rilo Kiley
In “A Better Son/Daughter,” Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis speaks of how difficult it can be to get out of bed in the morning when depressed. “Sometimes in the morning, I am petrified and can’t move,” she sings. “Awake but cannot open my eyes.”
Lewis herself has been battling depression since she was eight years old. “I’ve gone through terrible periods of depression,” she told the Independent. “I’ve always felt lonely, even if I’m in a great relationship, or surrounded by friends and family.”
Her song concludes on a high note, however — reflecting Lewis’ own off-beat brand of hope. “At the core of my being, there’s a strange, out-of-place optimist,” she confessed. “You’ll fight and you’ll make it through, you’ll fake it if you have to,” she sings. “You’ll be happy.”
15. “Black-Eyed Dog” by Nick Drake
Winston Churchill is said to have referred to his depression as a “black dog.” In “Black-Eyed Dog,” written just a short while before his death by suicide, Nick Drake does the same. “A black-eyed dog he knew my name,” he croons to the gentle twang of guitar strings. “A black-eyed dog he called at my door.”
Because mental illness was so stigmatized at the time (1970-74), Drake’s depression did not get the sustained treatment and attention it needed, though his parents and sister tended to him as best they knew how. He was just 26 years old when he died.
If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
16. “Rainbow” by Kesha
In the treatment facility, Kesha wasn’t allowed any technology — including instruments — but she begged for a keyboard and a “crappy” pair of headphones from the staff, who gave her access for one hour every day.
“Every day I sat on the floor and played,” she wrote in an article for Refinery 29. “Every day I would just cry and play that song because I knew I had to get through that incredibly hard time.”
Kesha believes her “Rainbow” album saved her life. She considers the album her personal promise to change, learn, take care of and love herself. She hopes listeners will also learn to see their own worth.
“No matter what you’ve been through… it doesn’t have to define who you are,” she wrote. “It’s true for me and it can be true for others, too.”
We hope some of these songs resonated with you. For more songs that have helped people living with mental health conditions, check out the following stories from our community. If you want to connect with our musical community, follow #MightyMusic.
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