CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast "Ongoing History of Protest Music."
Mental Illness Impacts Many
Mental Illness has a tremendous impact on countless individuals. If we are not affected directly, then we know someone close to us who is. We all have our own way of coping with the impact. It is only natural for musicians who are affected to write and sing songs about it. It should be no surprise that numerous songs have been written about mental illness.
The songs written tackle the subject of mental illness from a variety of different angles. The songwriter might be addressing their own bout, addressing an inflicted loved one, or commenting on the issue of mental illness in a broader sense. Many great songs have been written about the topic. These songs can help you feel like you're less alone in your experience.
12 Songs Written About Mental Illness
- "Yer Blues" by The Beatles
- "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor
- "The Needle and the Damage Done" by Neil Young
- "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd
- "Schizophrenia" by Sonic Youth
- "Grey Walls" by Richard Thompson
- "Lithium" by Nirvana
- "Brian Wilson" by Barenaked Ladies
- "4st 7lb" by Manic Street Preachers
- "Climbing to the Moon" by Eels
- "Chronic Schizophrenia" by Wesley Willis
- "Book of James" by We Are Augustines
Music is a coping mechanism in many ways. At times the impact of music is partly based on the ability of a songwriter to articulate our own feelings. For example, during my teenage struggles with anger and depression, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain and others resonated with me. In the same way, songs about mental illness can provide an emotional outlet to those grappling with similar issues. Below are 12 brilliant songs that deal with the topic. I've included videos and information for each song.
1. "Yer Blues" by The Beatles
Album: The Beatles
Release date: November 22, 1968
Appearing on The Beatles' 1968 self-titled album (most commonly referred to as The White Album), "Yer Blues" just may be the darkest song The Beatles ever recorded. The song contained references to suicide and it was written at a time when John Lennon was grappling with many inner demons. This song is one of the most gut wrenching and bluesy songs that The Beatles ever recorded.
The eagle picks my eye
The worm he licks my bones
I feel so suicidal
Just like Dylan's Mr. Jones
Lonely wanna die
If I ain't dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why.
2. "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor
Album: Sweet Baby James
Release date: February 1970
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Label: Warner Bros.
"Fire and Rain" is from James Taylor's 1970 album Sweet Baby James. It is one of those songs that is often misinterpreted. Instead of being taken literal, the imagery is figurative, and it represents various aspects of mental illness. In several interviews Taylor has indicated that the song partly dealt with the suicide of a close friend (Suzanne Schnerr) and it partly dealt with his own bouts with depression and drug addiction. The song also references his few stints in mental institutions. For example, the fire refers to shock therapy while the rain refers to the shower that follows.
One of the most misinterpreted lines of the song, "flying machines in pieces on the ground," did not refer to a literal plane crash which killed a close friend (the Suzanne referred to in the song lyrics) as some have thought. Instead it is a reference to the depression that Taylor was experiencing after his first band The Flying Machine broke up.
It is one of those few songs that are both dark and brooding and hopeful at the same time.
My body's aching and my time is at hand
and I won't make it any other way.
Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain.
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
but I always thought that I'd see you again.
3. "The Needle and the Damage Done" by Neil Young
Release date: February 1, 1972
"The Needle and the Damage Done" made its first appearance on the 1972 album Harvest. The song was recorded live at a January 30th, 1971 concert at UCLA. The song dealt with the heroin addiction of his friend, and Crazy Horse guitarist, Danny Whitten. Shortly after recording the tune, Danny Whitten died on November 18th, 1972 at the young age of 29. He died from a lethal combination of Valium (which he took for his arthritis) and alcohol (which he was taking to try to overcome his heroin addiction). You can tell from the mournful nature of the song that it pained Neil to watch his friend descent into addiction.
I hit the city and
I lost my band
I watched the needle
take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done.
This is not the first time that Neil addressed the perils of heroin addiction in his songs; it was a subject that he revisited on multiple occasions. Most notably he addressed the subject on his 1975 album Tonight's The Night, which addresses his grief over the heroin death of both Whitten and his roadie Bruce Berry. This is highlighted on the title track of that album.
I've seen the needle
and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie's
like a settin' sun.
4. "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd
Album: Wish You Were Here
Release date: September 12, 1975
Label: Harvest, Columbia
It was hard just selecting one song about mental illness from Pink Floyd, because it was a subject that the band has addressed on numerous occasions. I opted for the title track of their 1975 album, Wish You Were Here. "Wish You Were Here" dealt with Roger Waters's feelings of alienation from other people. Along with his feelings of alienation it also references the mental breakdown of original lead singer Syd Barrett. Through the lyrics Waters relates to Barrett's feeling of being isolattion from his friend.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl,
year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
"Shine On You Crazy Diamond" from the same album is also about Barrett. Interestingly, during the recording of Wish You Were Here, the reclusive Barrett made a surprise appearance in the studio and he observed the band record the song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." Shortly after, Barrett went back into seclusion again, where he cut off contact from the outside world right up until his death on July 7th, 2006.
So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
5. "Schizophrenia" by Sonic Youth
Release date: June 1987
"Schizophrenia" is from Sonic Youth's 1987 album Sister. The album took its inspiration from acclaimed science fiction author Philip K. Dick. Dick is a fascinating individual who grappled with many mental disorders, including schizophrenia. The song lyrics do address the delusions and paranoia which are commonly associated with schizophrenia. The change of dynamic in the song also adds poignancy to the subject matter.
I went away to see an old friend of mine
His sister came over she was out of her mind
She said Jesus had a twin who knew nothing about sin
She was laughing like crazy at the trouble I'm in
6. "Grey Walls" by Richard Thompson
Album: Rumor and Sigh
Release date: May 1991
This somewhat overlooked gem is from Thompson's 1991 album Rumor and Sigh. Trying to do the research, there is no indicators whether "Grey Walls" is about anyone in particular. By this point in his career Thompson was avoiding autobiographical songs, and instead was composing fictional narratives and character sketches. Regardless, the tune obviously deals with mental illness and the female protagonist in the song is committed to a mental institution. The lyrics also address the agony of watching a love one's mental decline.
Cigarette burns down her arm, said she tried to do herself harm
Tied her arms in the back, trussed her up like a sack
Oh behind grey walls, somewhere there's a soul
Behind grey walls, she's out of control
She's crying out for help, no-one can hear
O Lord have pity on her
7. "Lithium" by Nirvana
Release date: July 13, 1992
"Lithium" is from Nirvana's 1991 landmark album, Nevermind. The song's title is a reference to Karl Marx's statement concerning religion being the "opium of the people." The lyrics is about a man whose girlfriend died and as a response to his depression he turns to religion to help him from committing suicide. Kurt Cobain also acknowledged that the lyrics draw on some of his own personal struggles. Kurt Cobain made the following statement, concerning religion as a coping mechanism for mental illness, in the 1993 Nirvana biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana "I've always felt that some people should have religion in their lives . . . That's fine. If it's going to save someone, it's okay. And the person in ['Lithium'] needed it." Kurt Cobain himself struggled with various aspects of mental illness which were quite often expressed in his lyrics. On April 5, 1994 he lost the battle when he died at the age of 27.
Broke our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I'm not scared, light my candles
In a daze 'cause I've found God
8. "Brian Wilson" by Barenaked Ladies
Release date: 1992
"Brain Wilson" received its first wide release on Barenaked Ladies 1992 debut studio album Gordon (but it was included on their 1991 self titled indie cassette, which went platinum in Canada). The lyrics speak of an individual whose life resembles that of Brian Wilson.
Lying in bed
Just like Brian Wilson did
Well I am
Lying in bed
Just like Brian Wilson did
Brian Wilson, the creative genius behind The Beach Boys, had experienced well publicized bouts with mental illness. Wilson's mental condition first started to deteriorate in 1967 when he started to suffer anxiety attacks due to the pressure of trying to create the album, Smile. Wilson wanted Smile to be a masterpiece, and Wilson's inability to live up to his own colossal expectations lead to a nervous breakdown. The Smile project was aborted and wasn't completed until Wilson released it as a solo album in 2004. Throughout his life he would go through up and downs and he would constantly grapple with drug and food addiction. But by the 2000s Wilson's mental health had stabilized and he started to experience an artistic re-emergence.
Going back to the Barenaked Ladies tune, it is interesting to know that Wilson himself has been known to cover the song during concert performances. Wilson performed a 55 second portion of it, which was featured on his 2000 album, Live at the Roxy Theatre.
Drove downtown in the rain
Nine-thirty on a Tuesday night
Just to check out the late-night record shop
Call it impulsive, call it compulsive
You can call it insane, oh oh
But when I'm surrounded
I just can't stop
9. "4st 7lb" by Manic Street Preachers
Album: The Holy Bible
Release date: August 29, 1994
"4st 7lb" is from the Manic Street Preachers 1994 album, The Holy Bible. Many of the songs on the album reflect the deteriorating mental condition of rhythm guitarist and chief lyricist Richey Edwards. Edwards was diagnosed with multiple types of mental illness and he was known to regularly engage in self-mutilation.
The 4 stone 7 pounds referenced in the song is considered the weight below which death becomes unavoidable for anorexics. Edwards weight had fallen to 6 stones (38 kg or 84 pounds) so the title was not far off from his own condition. The sound sample at the beginning of the song is from a 1994 documentary on anorexia, Caraline's Story. The lyrics masterfully chronicle an anorexic's struggle with body image.
Problem is diets not a big enough word
I wanna be so skinny that I rot from view
I want to walk in the snow
And not leave a footprint
The Holy Bible was the last album that the Manic Street Preachers put out before Edwards disappearance on February 1st, 1995. He was officially presumed dead on November 23, 2008. He was 27 years old when he disappeared.
10. "Climbing to the Moon" by Eels
Album: Electro-Shock Blues
Release date: 1998
"Climbing to the Moon" is from the Eels somewhat overlooked 1998 masterpiece, Electro-Shock Blues. The Eels's mastermind E (Mark Oliver Everett) wrote the majority of the songs on the album. The lyrics refer to the death of his mother from cancer, or the suicide of his mentally ill sister. "Climbing to the Moon" deals with E visiting his sister Elisabeth at a mental hospital just prior to her death. It is a touching and beautifully mournful narrative.
And it's getting hard to tell where
What I am ends
And what they're making me begins
11. "Chronic Schizophrenia" by Wesley Willis
Album: Greatest Hits (1995) and Rush Hour (2000)
Release date: 1995 and 2000
Label: Urban Legends
"Chronic Schizophrenia" is from Wesley Wilis' 2000 album, Rush Hour. Prior to his death on August 21st, 2003, Willis recorded over 1000 songs and has independently released over 50 albums. He has a considerable cult following and he is considered an icon of outsider music.
Willis also suffered from chronic schizophrenia, which is addressed in this song. Musically the song sounds just like every other Willis song. What the tune lacks in talent it makes up for in sincerity. For Willis, his music truly was an outlet to help him cope with his mental demons.
My mind plays tricks on me every time I say something
It brings evil voices out of my head, and talks to me vulgar
Then suddenly, I started raving
12. "Book of James" by We Are Augustines
Album: Rise Ye Sunken Ships
Release date: 2011
"Book of James" was written by We Are Augustines's (just as a note they shorten their name to Augstines in 2013) 2011 exceptional debut album Rise Ye Sunken Ships. The album deals heavily with the suicides of lead singer Bill McCarthy's mom & brother (both suffered from schizophrenia).
"Book of James" is the emotional centerpiece of the album. It focuses specifically on the death of McCarthy's brother James. It is hard not to listen to the song without getting choked up.
I guess you're either heading somewhere or ending up somewhere
cause I tried the bible, tried the bottle,
tried the needle and I tried to love people
And in the end there ain't nothing to say
And in the end there ain't nothing you can say anyway
And I stand here in my shoes, unable to move
my hat in my hands, at the bottom of the ocean
© 2013 CJ Baker
Any songs about mental illness that you would like to share? Feel free to leave any other feedback.
Chris on April 11, 2019:
In my room is a song about mental illness
Boomer Music Man on July 03, 2016:
I didn't know that there were songs regarding mental illness, It helps me understand my brother who has schizophrenia. I like the way you give a vivid description of each song. Thanks and Bravo for a well written blog.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on August 21, 2013:
I agree Artois that the stigma needs to be removed. I do feel that music is a positive way of drawing awareness. Thanks for the read and comment.
Artois52 from England on August 21, 2013:
As a sufferer of mental illness myself, I appreciate anything that highlights the issues. There is still a huge stigma attached to it despite the fact one in four people will suffer at some time in their lives.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on March 05, 2013:
It wasn't until I did the research for this hub that I learned about "Fire and Rain" being about mental illness. That was a new one for me. I am glad that you found the hub informative. Thanks for the read and the comment.
UndercoverAgent19 on March 05, 2013:
Very interesting hub! I knew some of the more obvious one's like "Lithium" and "Yer Blues" but I had no idea about others, such as "Brian Wilson" and "Fire and Rain." I learned something new today!
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on March 01, 2013:
Nirvana didn't really have a lot songs which directly dealt with mental illness, but they definitely have a lot of songs which deals with the subject indirectly. A lot of Nirvana's lyrics at least partially dealt with Kurt's experiences. As you mention since he was bi-polar is does come across in a number of his songs. Thanks for the read and the comment.
aparkhurst7 from Wilkes Barre, PA West Hartford, CT on March 01, 2013:
I'm sure there are a lot more Nirvana songs since Kurt Cobain was bi-polar.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on February 27, 2013:
Hey sister K, glad to have you back! Your kind words are always a source of encouragement. Thinking of how you were able to cope with the situation with your sister, has proved to be an inspiration to me, and I was even thinking about that when I was composing the hub. I am happy that you appreciated the hub.
Yvonne Spence from UK on February 27, 2013:
A very interesting read. Some of these musicians are new to me and some I know. I didn't know the details of "Fire and Rain" and will listen to it differently in future. It's interesting that so many musicians seem to die at 27 - you've listed a few here and I remember reading something about it when Amy Winehouse died.
Kristi Sharp from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota. on February 27, 2013:
Hey Brother, It's nice to come back and see that you are still putting great things into the world. I enjoy watching videos and the Neil Young song reminded me of my sister. You have such an amazing and encyclopedic knowledge of music. Love your work -K
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on February 26, 2013:
Thanks Laura, Mhatter & LisaMarie. I appreciate that you took the time to read & comment.
Laura Tykarski from Pittsburgh PA on February 26, 2013:
Loved this hub voted up and awesome. Thanks.
Martin Kloess from San Francisco on February 26, 2013:
Thank you for this selection.
Lisa Stover from Pittsburgh PA on February 25, 2013:
Great hub, I never knew these songs were about mental illness. Well done.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on February 25, 2013:
Thanks for the read, comment and vote. Glad you found it enlightening.
peachy from Home Sweet Home on February 25, 2013:
Didn't know there are so many songs related to mental illness. Thanks for enlighten me with your hub. Voted useful