From rock-imbued rage to sorrowful songs about depression or suicide, music has always been a way for people to bare their souls and connect with each other. You’ll find a variety of deep emotions made raw in this list of songs about mental illness.
Before you dive deep into melancholy and mental health themes, please note that some of these tracks include themes of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thought. If you’re struggling with similar thoughts, help is available. Dial 988 to speak to someone now.
1. Boy Next Door – Richard Marx
Backed by clean guitar riffs and Richard Marx’s easy-listening tenor voice, this song surprises with its dark themes and narrative. Released in 2000, The Boy Next Door covered this theme well before pop culture shows like Dexter and the rise in popularity of true crime podcasts.
The subject of the song is the literal boy next door and the dark things that go on in the neighborhood because he isn’t quite normal. It’s never outright said, but the songwriter clearly leads the listener to conclude that the boy next door killed his little sister and other people throughout the neighborhood. It’s also hinted that no one knew he had some sort of mental illness leading to these killings because no one paid close enough attention to him.
2. Anesthetize – Porcupine Tree
Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree capture some common feelings of life as a teenager in Anesthetize, but the lyrics and angst of the music take those emotions further into the realm of mental health concerns.
The narrator in the song talks about how senseless life really is, hinting at feeling depressed or sad about it all. He’s not really living a life, he feels, but he also doesn’t feel free to talk about his feelings. He reminds himself to put on the happy mask; meanwhile, he anesthetizes with pills and other poor coping mechanisms.
3. Bullet With Butterfly Wings – The Smashing Pumpkins
Bullet With Butterfly Wings is one of The Smashing Pumpkins’ most popular and recognizable songs. From the iconic first line “The world is a vampire” to the catchy chorus that proclaims the narrator is full of rage and a rat in a cage, this angst-infused tune oddly invites listeners to sing along and release their own pent-up angst.
The track may be about feeling oppressed in any way by the world, not being able to be oneself or act on one’s emotions. Billy Corgan, singer and guitarist for The Smashing Pumpkins, once mentioned a Freudian concept to do with a psychic bullet. Freud, it seems, believed everyone had such a bullet, and to heal psychically, you had to find that bullet and remove it.
4. Breakdown – Tantric
Breakdown by Tantric begins with a compelling guitar riff that brings the listener in and seems, at first, at odds with the eventual message of the song. Then Hugo Ferreira’s gravely vocals join in, and the song moves quickly through a narrative about someone who is living well on the surface but falling apart inside.
The chorus to the track reminds us that everyone can come to the breakdown. “I know the breakdown, Everything is gonna shake now someday.” The song also asks the question many people ask themselves: Is everyone else living this way, with a hidden breakdown inside?
5. Flagpole Sitta – Harvey Danger
On the surface, many people think this song is about sex and even masturbation. While the lyrics do mention lost love and potential sexual or phallic symbols, the track overall has a deeper mental health meaning.
The narrator in the song is struggling in a world that doesn’t make sense to him, and he is riding the line between admitting he may have a mental health issue or not doing so. “I’m not sick but I’m not well,” he repeats in the chorus, also likening his situation to being in hell.
6. Mr. Brownstone – Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses penned this song to talk about the impact of heroin on their lives. It may not be completely autobiographical, but the themes are definitely true to the band’s life at the time.
The lyrics say they dance with Mr. Brownstone, which might be a pseudonym for a drug dealer or for the drug itself. One important note in this track is that the lyrics talk about how the group needed more and more drugs to get the same impact, which is very true to the journey many people take into addiction.
7. Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
Comfortably Numb was released in 1979. Its psychedelic intro and haunting back-tracked vocals put the listener immediately in mind of the depression the lyrics seem to mention once the chorus arrives. The narrator of the song struggles to care about the world and people around him, but he’s too deep in the numbness of depression.
A potential takeaway from this track is that the vocals call the numbness comfortable, and by the time the chorus arrives, the melodic music sways the listener into that same comfort. There’s a point here about how sometimes, it’s hard to climb out of depression because we become comfortable in that void.
8. Today – The Smashing Pumpkins
While this song repeats a seemingly hopeful lyric about today being the greatest day, the meaning behind the tune is much darker. Billy Corgan admitted that he was very depressed when he wrote this song and even alluded in some interviews to being suicidal when he penned the lyrics. Even so, the singer and songwriter considered this track to be a light pop song and may not have expected listeners to connect so much with the deeper meaning.
9. Everybody Hurts – R.E.M.
Many of the songs so far on this list have been about anger, pain, and depression without giving much in the way of advice or hope for dealing with it. R.E.M.’s anthem to the pain of this life does just take.
The verses dig a bit into common feelings of hurt people may experience, such as believing they are alone or thinking the days and nights are too long to bear. But the chorus reminds us that everyone hurts and that these are very human pains we deal with sometimes. R.E.M. encourages listeners not to let themselves go because everyone cries and hurts sometimes. Instead, the lyrics encourage people to join in and sing along, to find companionship and support during the pain.
10. Save Myself – Ed Sheeran
Here’s another song that delves into the common ways we as humans can falter and what we may need to do when that happens. Ed Sheeran’s lyrics talk about giving away all of oneself—to the point that you feel like you don’t have enough left to go on living correctly. He points out that it’s easy to then turn to alcohol and drugs or other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
But, in the line that says, “So before I save someone else, I’ve got to save myself,” Sheeran reminds listeners that it’s important to work on yourself. To seek rest, rehab, professional help, or just the time to heal when you need it. Because if there’s nothing left of you because you gave it all away, there’s no way you can save someone else.
11. If I Had a Heart – Fever Ray
The lyrics of this song convey a problem that’s almost the direct opposite of Ed Sheeran’s Save Myself. In If I Had A Heart, the narrator is begging for more and more from someone else, potentially because they don’t feel they have the heart or capacity to love the other person (or perhaps themselves) the right way.
This can be just as problematic as giving all of yourself away. Learning to open up to others in healthy ways can be an important step toward balanced mental health.
12. Gasoline – Halsey
Halsey opens this moody, catchy song with the words, “Are you insane like me?” The lyrics go on to list actions that may make the narrative “insane” such as being high without even using drugs or pulling herself apart just to get the right reactions from the audience or the people around her.
While some of the lyrics of this song on the surface relate to life on stage, they can also relate to everyday life. Many people have felt like they weren’t a full person as they live out a life that seems to be only part of a machine. The track ends with lyrics that say the narrator thinks there’s a flaw in her code, and feeling like something is intrinsically wrong with you because you don’t “fit” right into the world around can be disconcerting and lead to anxiety and depression.
13. Dark Side – Bishop Briggs
This song from Bishops Briggs explores how darkness and mental health issues in people impact their relationships with others. One message of this track is that the narrator feels she is “broken” and that she will pass this brokenness on by breaking others. Even in parts of the song that seem to be about having fun together or supporting each other, the words themselves are off and broken: “I can be your reckless, you can be my stain, I can be your heartache, you can be my shame.”
14. Far From Home (The Raven) – Sam Tinnesz
The slow, evocative rumble of Sam Tinnesz’s voice brings a hard-hitting mood to this song. The lyrics tell the story of a man who is lost—or has lost everything. He doesn’t know if he can find his way back home—literally or figuratively—and he doesn’t know if anyone even notices how low he has fallen or how far away from okay he is.
The lyrics say “I’m sending a message, Of feathers and bone, Just let me know I’m not forgotten out here alone.” The sorrowful melody of the song joins with other similar lyrics to create an image of someone reaching out in the only way they know how and hoping that someone reaches back to help them.
15. Losing Hold – Esterly featuring Austin Jenckes
Powerhouse vocals and a memorable melody make this song an added contrast between despair and hope. The vocalists sing about being at the lowest of lows, past pain and any feeling, where the only thing that you can do is let go. But there’s the hope of “staring at a last chance down below.”
Some of the lyrics and the way the song builds evoke the desperate control in breathing and the chest that you might fight for when a panic attack is imminent. But instead of leaving the listener feeling like the panic attack came and all was lost, the track hints at overcoming the issue, potentially with the help that is seen in the distance.
16. Lonely – Palaye Royale
The fact that this is one of the darker songs on this list is belied by the catchy music and wordplay in the lyrics. The track hits on depression, loneliness, drug use, and suicidal thoughts. He also talks about being able to do nothing but lie in bed, which is something that resonates with people of all types and ages that have dealt with depression.
17. Unwell – Matchbox Twenty
This is a song about feeling like something is wrong with you or that you’re crazy because you don’t fit in with the rest of the world. In the end, it leads the listener to the conclusion that they aren’t crazy because the world is messed up and many people feel this way.
18. Sober – Demi Lovato
If you’re looking for songs about mental illness that deal with substance abuse problems, Demi Lovato delivers. Sober is just one of her songs that explore this topic.
19. Fight Song – Rachel Platten
Let’s end this list with a couple of songs that are more about fighting back against mental illness than dwelling in it. Fight Song is an anthem for anyone who is looking to overcome any type of struggle, including mental illness.
20. CHAMPION – Bishop Briggs
CHAMPION is a song about overcoming the oppression and mental health issues that can come from an abusive relationship. The chorus is an upbeat, rocking anthem that you can dance or sing to while remembering that you are not useless and you can call on internal strength.
21. Breathin – Ariana Grande
In this song, which looks at how panic and anxiety can hit, Ariana Grande reminds the listener to breathe. This isn’t a metaphor; she confirmed in interviews that the song is about dealing with anxiety attacks.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.