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Hip Hop Psych – Can Rap Music Help Treat Depression?

Depression sucks. Plain and simple. At the risk of trying to come across as an expert on the subject, I’ll share a few statistics and direct you to this link , this one, and this last one for a more in-depth look at just how many people depression in all its forms affects. Roughly 9% of Americans suffer from some variation of depression, with major depressive disorder being the top cause of disability for 15 – 44 years olds, affecting almost 15 million Americans yearly. The most alarming statistic I came across is that though roughly 1 in 10 Americans suffer from sort of depression, only 20% of those with symptoms actually receive treatment for it. I’ve been on both sides of that fence, having received treatment and counseling when my depression was at its peak but having dealt with it since, choosing to fight it off on my own with no formal counseling and no antidepressants. Depression is a nemesis of mine, and when it rears its ugly head I lace up my bootstraps and go to battle. That of course is a metaphor. I’m also a writer / emcee, so I’m quite fond of metaphors. So while I don’t literally throw on some boots to go to war, I have at times written and almost always listen. Listen to who or what you may ask, if not a licensed medic? Hip Hop of course. I listen to Rap. And it usually helps. Usually… Sometimes it does more harm than good. Let me expound.

A buddy of mine who’s also a writer (though not of the emcee ilk, but rather a columnist for a prominent New England based online magazine) sent me this article which I recommend you read. The headline of the piece immediately piqued my curiosity. ‘Hip-hop therapy is new route to mental wellbeing, say psychiatrists.‘ “Really? Well that’s pretty cool,” I thought to myself. The subtext however, ‘Pharrell Williams song Happy highlighted for possible use in helping patients to tackle their own problems‘ admittedly made me skeptical. I’ve just really never liked that song too much. I always thought it was corny and my knee jerk reaction was, “You’re telling me Pharrel’s ‘Happy’ works as treatment for depression? No way!” At day’s end however, the connection is very real and personal to me. I love Rap music. I make Rap music. I write about Rap music. I struggle with depression. I often turn to Hip Hop (for better or worse) when I’m depressed. My intrigue was greater than my skepticism, so I continued reading.

The article’s focus is on the Hip Hop Psych project which aims to utilize Hip Hop as a “powerful vehicle for raising awareness of mental health.” hip-hop-psych-tmIt states that “hip-hop provides individuals with a sense of empowerment and self-knowledge that could be exploited to help people tackle their own psychological problems. There is an intrinsic awareness of issues connected with mental health in many forms of hip-hop.” Alright… I can see a connection there, but how exactly do these researchers interpret this? One of the women involved with the study, Becky Inkster, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University department of psychiatry goes on to explain that “many key rappers and hip-hop artists come from deprived urban areas which are often hotbeds for problems such as drug abuse, domestic violence and poverty, which are in turn linked to increased occurrences of psychiatric illnesses. These problems are rooted in their language and in their songs.” She concludes by stating, “hip-hop in general, and rap in particular, often carry messages that are much more complex than is generally appreciated. That makes it an ideal medium for helping individuals understand their psychological problems and for finding ways to deal with them.” The article notes that the therapy doesn’t just involve listening to Rap music, but also encouraging patients to write their own lyrics as a means of not only better understanding their current situation, but also forecasting where they’d like to be in the future.

I get that. I understand that many Rap lyrics do in fact deal with issues such as violence and poverty that can lead to depression. Also as I mentioned earlier, I’ve both listened to Hip Hop and written my own lyrics to help alleviate my depression in the past. Of course, my own experiences doing so have not been under formalized medical supervision. Reading this article however made me think about my history with depression and Hip Hop. My depression was diagnosed in my late teens, not long after I graduated high school. I may or may not have been depressed prior to graduating, I’m honestly not sure. What I do know is that it peaked during my freshmen and sophomore years in college.

To make a very long story as short as I could possibly make it, there was a young lady, other guys, a pregnancy and subsequent abortion, and a love stricken, too young and unprepared to deal with all that me. Throw in a full course load, a failed and terribly timed fraternity pledge, and a slew of extra-curricular activities (all centered around student government and multicultural affairs) along with the fact that these were my first years away from home and you have a recipe for something bad happening. Oh, and paramount to all my pain, liquor. Introspective and emotional I had always been. Drunk, not so much. So it all crested in two inebriated pill popping sessions in about a 3 week period, the second a lot more dramatic than the first. I was all set with what life had become. I couldn’t shake the pains of heartbreak and betrayal and was very confused.

Was the abortion a huge mistake or the only logical recourse? Why hadn’t I been more careful? Why did she wait to tell me about the pregnancy till after she started hooking up with other people? Why couldn’t those other people understand my dismay? And how the hell was I supposed to get this meeting itinerary and this paper done when I couldn’t even get out of bed anymore? Prior to all this, as many young people do, I felt invincible. I felt like there was nothing besides myself that could derail me from my goals. In the midst of this depressive storm however, I could barely function. It was taking me twice as long to get my work done. And partly because of all those extracurricular activities where I wanted to maintain the appearance of a strong leader, in control at all times, but mainly because I foolishly convinced myself that I’d figure everything out on my own, I kept it all to myself. I let it fester within my inner being and it all exploded in those two drunken attempts at permanent sedation.

After that second episode my treatment started in earnest. I was in a residential psychiatric facility for a week or two. I had to see a counselor for a while. I was on medication. That all lasted about 2 years. Honestly, it’s all a big blur, but I do remember the Hip Hop. I remember being on a flight to California and spending the entire plane ride writing my angst, anger, and sadness away. Though at the time I was still feeling my way through putting verses and entire songs together (a practice I’d hammer home a couple of years later, in part because my depression led me to write so much), some of those writings are among the most powerful and vile I’ve penned yet. My anger wasn’t only directed at the aforementioned young lady and other guys, but truth be told a good chunk of the campus.

Pen SwordI felt like all but a handful of people abandoned me at a time when I was most in need of friendship. I wanted to die and most looked the other way. I still largely feel this way, though I now understand I brought a lot of it on myself by not sharing my pain with anyone. I didn’t want to put anyone’s business out there, including my own. Maybe I should have. Either way, on that plane ride and subsequent writing sessions, it didn’t matter. I was Ice Cube after he left N.W.A. and everyone else was the rest of the group. I was truly writing from a ‘Me Against The World’ standpoint. I was gunning at an army of former friends turned fakers. That’s how it felt. And man it felt good to get that out. It was necessary. It was therapeutic. I just spent a few minutes re-reading some of those rhymes with the hopes of finding something I can add to this post, but my chest caved. It took me back there, and I don’t want to go back there. I don’t think I’d ever share those rhymes with anyone involved, except maybe the young lady who I hope to never see again. But at the time they helped me exhale. They helped me to cope. And it was all in Rap form.

The flip side to the writing of course was the listening. At my depressive zenith, it always felt good listening to 80s Hip Hop like Run DMC and the Fat Boys, as the music was fun and creative and centered largely around lyrical compositions and concept tracks. The Gangsta/Reality rap however was a bad idea. Especially when if there was liquor involved. It made me angrier than I needed to be. I mentally and emotionally fell into those misogynistic and violent pockets and though I wouldn’t act out on it, it would often put me in a much darker state of mind than was healthy. It would intensify the depression. Honestly, I don’t even think you have to be clinically depressed for Gangsta rap to take you to those places we needn’t visit too often. All it really takes is a bad night, some liquor, and the right (wrong) playlist. And that’s not to condemn Gangsta Rap. I personally love the music, but I also love bacon and wouldn’t recommend it after cake and soda. There’s a time and place for everything, and being self-aware of one’s depression is an ongoing study in just that.

As the years progressed, well after my counseling and medication days were over, I realized depression doesn’t just go away. You can feel great one month and awful the next. Anything can trigger it; heartbreak, family issues, money troubles, dissatisfaction with your job, etc… Though I’ve never experienced it as badly as that 2-3 year period after high school, I’ve definitely had my moments where depression hit and I had to find ways to conquer it. I’ve learned liquor is the absolute worst thing for me when I feel down. This should have come as no surprise given that I learned in middle school that alcohol was a depressant, but some of us have to learn the hard way I guess…

I’ve also learned to stay away from certain Rap music when I’m in the dumps, and to gravitate towards other types. Certain artists’ music for example, some of my favorites like Tupac and Nas, is simply too real for me when I’m depressed. Their story-telling and song concepts paint such a vivid picture of angst and anger on given songs that instead of helping me deal with whatever’s troubling me, it has the opposite effect. It intensifies the depression. ‘Pac’s ‘So Many Tears’ for example, one of my absolute favorite tracks ever, is so well performed and so deep to me that it drives my depression to the next level. But if I listen to ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’ by Kendrick Lamar or any of my favorites by Will Smith (‘Summertime’, ‘Brand New Funk’, ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It’), I chill out a bit and feel better. Writing on the other hand has been a constant positive for me. Some of my favorite songs have stemmed from my depressive moments. My verse on ‘Cursed Angel‘ deals with everything from losing my father at age 10 to the heartbreak and abortion situations mentioned earlier in this post to professional malaise and them some. ‘Can’t Hyde‘ is a solo track of mine that details relationship struggles with my ex-fiance. Both songs are intrinsically depressive in nature, but unlike some of those heavy Tupac or Nas tracks that add to my depression, whenever I listen to my own music, it helps. Why? I don’t know. I’d love to run it by the research group at Hip Hop Psych however.

That brings me to my final points. First and foremost, I implore anyone out there who think they might be depressed to mention it to your primary care physician, if not a friend or family member. It’s not the easiest thing to admit, but it’s also likely not one of those things you’ll just “snap out of” one morning. Regardless of your walk of life, you may have some deeply rooted experiences that are making you feel “off” and the worst thing you can do is ignore that feeling. You might benefit from some counseling. I’m not big on antidepressants myself, but when I was at my lowest, if nothing else they helped keep me afloat until I learned other techniques to better deal with my depression; namely jogging, talking it out, and writing. Also, if you know you’re depressed or even think you may be, be aware that turning to liquor truly is like adding gasoline to the fire. Terrible idea. My suggestion, just don’t do it.

DepressionIt’s hard to think of depression as an illness or an injury, but you have to. The biggest lesson I learned from all the counseling is that depression is treatable. When you have a bum knee, you take some pain-killers, wear a brace for support, and rehab it till you get it back to full or near-full strength. Just because you can’t physically see depression doesn’t mean that a) it’s not there and b) it’s not treatable. Some people have bum knees, some people have depression. When you accept this, you empower yourself to treat it more effectively. So again, please don’t ignore the warning signs and conversely please DO ignore all the idiots that think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill when you express your angst. They have no clue what they’re talking about and it’s in large part because of that mentality that only 20% of those with depression actually get treated. If you’re depressed, the odds of you “snapping out of it” are slim to nil. It’s best to get help.

Lastly, when it comes to Hip Hop or any type of music for that matter, be careful, regardless of what the reference study says. I’m no clinician myself, and in no way is my intent to undermine all of the hard work and expertise put into that research. All I can do is share my experiences and my thoughts. For the most part, I think music does help cheer you up when you’re down and Hip Hop in particular can be very relatable and helpful to those who struggle with depression. Awareness is paramount when it comes to battling this demon, and in my opinion this is where the biggest benefit of the Hip Hop Psych project lies. Whereas many themes in Rap music coincide with depressive triggers and conversely many other Rap concepts are about empowering oneself to overcome obstacles and succeed, I can absolutely understand and support the connection between Hip Hop and battling depression. In my experience however, there’s another side to that coin that can lead to more struggles. Some Hip Hop just doesn’t work for me when I’m feeling down. It can turn into a slippery slope, because you tend to gravitate towards the artists and songs you like most when you’re not feeling up to par, but you have to be careful and cognizant of how it is that you actually respond to those songs. Why make a bad situation worse? So again, I applaud and support the study’s mission, but strongly suggest that you pay attention to how particular songs make you feel. They’re not all going to work the same way. Find what works for you, whether it’s music, physical activities, talking to somebody or any combination therein. Once you can solidify what actually makes you feel better, you can stay a step ahead of your depression and hopefully keep it from overwhelming you.Overcoming depression

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