“I been on a low; I been taking my time; I feel like I’m out of my mind; I feel like my life ain’t mine; who can relate?”
New research suggests many Americans did relate to the opening lyrics of “1-800-273-8255,” a 2017 hit song from U.S. hip hop artist Logic. The data finds a significant rise in calls to the national suicide hotline soon after the chart-topping single’s release.
The song’s subject is suicide, with the title referencing the actual number for the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline (NSPH). It was a big hit, gaining lots of traction via a video and live performances at award ceremonies.
Now, new data reveals that over the course of one month in 2017 — when attention on the song reached its peak — calls to the national suicide hotline jumped nearly 7%, while actual suicides fell 5.5% below expectations.
Experts in suicide prevention weren’t surprised.
The NSPH “has long known that stories of hope and recovery are a powerful means of suicide prevention, and that collaboration with creators and individuals with lived experience can save lives,” said Kate Formichella, a New York City-based communications specialist with the NSPH.
The researchers were “very encouraged by the findings,” said study lead author Thomas Niederkrotenthaler. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine with the Center for Public Health at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria.
The song’s video features a young Black man who is bullied and discriminated for being gay. “He is in a suicidal crisis, but then decides to reach out and call the Lifeline, which marks a turning point to his mastery of crisis,” said Niederkrotenthaler, who is also the first vice president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
He and his team set out to see if the song had any apparent impact on call patterns to the suicide hotline and suicide risk in the real world.
They tracked hotline calls over a 34-day period in 2017 that immediately followed three high-profile song-related events: the song’s release, a performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, and a performance on the 2018 Grammy Awards.
The investigators found that the number of calls to the hotline in that time frame went up by more than 9,900 (representing a nearly 7% jump).
In addition, U.S. National Center for Health Statistics data indicated that there were 245 fewer suicides (a 5.5% drop) compared to the same period in the past.
The study was published Dec. 13 in the BMJ.
The findings, Niederkrotenthaler stressed, cannot prove the song actually caused suicide risk to fall, only that there appears to be a link between the two.
But Formichella pointed to prior research that has “also demonstrated that media sharing stories of hope and recovery also can reduce suicides.” And songs like Logic’s, she added, “can model positive coping strategies, destigmatize mental health, and raise awareness of available resources.”
In fact, “it would be great to encourage other high-profile cultural figures to use their influence to similar effect,” said Alexandra Pitman, author of an accompanying editorial and a clinical associate professor in psychiatry at University College London.
Unfortunately, Pitman said it’s relatively rare for artists of Logic’s popularity to wade into such waters. But when celebrities do so, it can be lifesaving, she said, “particularly if they have influence in specific communities, such as certain ethnic groups, occupational groups, or sexual or gender minority groups.
“Logic expresses very clearly in the lyrics how desperate [the person in the song] feels and how close he is to taking his life,” Pitman noted. “He uses language that helps describe to other people how strong these feelings are of wanting to die. Many people who feel low in mood can’t find the words to express how they feel. He gives voice to difficult thoughts, and makes it more acceptable to talk about these things without fear of being judged.
“I have the greatest respect for him in using his influence to communicate such an important message,” Pitman added.
“The findings are clearly encouraging,” he said, noting that “stories of hope and recovery that feature individuals coping with suicidal ideation and crisis can have a beneficial effect.”
And the song’s apparent impact, Niederkrotenthaler said, “also indicates that creative collaborations of suicide prevention with the entertainment industry can be extremely helpful to reach large and diverse audiences with such stories of hope.”
Those seeking help can find out more at the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
SOURCES: Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, PhD., associate professor, department of social and preventive medicine, Center for Public Health, Medical University of Vienna, Austria, and first vice president, International Association for Suicide Prevention; Alexandra Pitman, Psych PhD, clinical associate professor, psychiatry, and honorary consultant psychiatrist, University College London, division of psychiatry; Kate Formichella, marketing and communications specialist, Disaster Distress Helpline, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Vibrant Emotional Health, New York City; BMJ, Dec. 13, 2021