Abstract: The Influence of Popular Music Referencing Anxiety and Depression on College Students’ Mental Health Attitudes

◆ Alex Kresovich, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Background. College students’ age cohort has experienced an increase in suicide rate that has reached its highest point in decades (Miron et al., 2019) while scholars have observed significant increases over time in the presence of anger, disgust, fear, and sadness cues in American pop music lyrics (Napier & Shamir, 2018). Concurrently, college students are listening to music – and thus surrounded by these messages in the lyrics – more than ever before (Nielsen, 2017, November 2). As these types of songs have the potential to raise awareness of mental health risk and normalize proactive mental health behaviors, the present survey of U.S. college students ages 18 to 24 aimed to examine the potential effects of exposure to mental health messages from this often overlooked yet highly influential medium.

Methods. College students (N = 253) at a large southeastern university were surveyed about their exposure to five contemporary pop songs about struggling with mental health (MH) to examine associations between their perceived personal connection (PPC) to the songs themselves (an adaptation of identification), their parasocial relationship (PSR) with the songs’ performing artists, and their empathy for others who struggle with their MH. Empathy was proposed as a mediator between the audience involvement measures – PPC and PSR – and outcome measures including reduced MH stigma, support for public MH resources, willingness to seek MH help, and willingness to support others struggling with their MH.

Results. Of the 253 participants, 98.8% (n = 250) reported being familiar with at least one of the five songs with a mental health theme. Linear regressions controlling for background factors including age, gender, race, personal MH experience, and affinity for songs discussing MH struggles indicated that both college students’ PPC with the songs and their PSR with the artists was associated increased MH empathy. This empathy mediated outcomes including reduced stigma, support for public MH resources, and willingness to support others struggling with their MH, but not willingness to seek MH help. Post hoc analyses revealed that college students who reported stronger PPC to these songs reported that they use music to self-medicate for their MH symptoms.

Conclusions. This study highlights popular music as an underexplored mainstream medium with immense potential to influence young people’s mental health attitudes and behaviors. These types of songs may be playing a role in increasing college students’ MH empathy and thus are helping to foster proactive mental health behaviors and intentions among this at-risk population. The findings are fascinating for public health as young adults are being surrounded by popular songs with mental health messages more than ever before. Celebrity musical artists are viewed as peer role models by this at-risk population; MH practitioners should consider both these artists and their music as an MH message delivery system to encourage proactive MH behaviors among this at-risk population.