Help my Teenager: Music and Depression

Note: Songwriting and music have both been instrumental in helping me overcome multiple emotional, mental health traumas. This particular blog post discusses one mental health focus: depression, but also touches on a number of other benefits from songwriting, songs about depression, and music as a whole.

If you're more of a visual/audio person, check out my TEDx Talk discussing how songwriting saved my life after having had ten brain surgeries: one of the many traumas I personally experienced as a young person.

I was twelve years old when I was first officially diagnosed with depression. Of course, this was just before Instant Messenger [MSN messenger], and social media [MySpace and Bebo] became a thing: but nonetheless, the struggles of adolescence, puberty, and trauma were real.

Granted: my trauma looked different to many people in my social circles, but trauma isn't about comparing scars. We all wear trauma differently, but that doesn't mean that there aren't some significant similarities in how it manifests itself. Depression, anxiety, self-inflicted pain, lack of hope, feeling left behind, panic.... these are some of the many ways in which many young people whom have experienced trauma are left feeling.

For me, however, my trauma began at the age of four months - before I even knew what trauma was.

I was born with a relatively rare neurological condition called hydrocephalus, which lead to my first brain surgery of many surgeries at the tender age of 4months. Quick medical lesson: Hydrocephalus is a medical term that literally translates to "water on the brain". Everyone's brains float in water. That water changes by between 400mls to 600mls every day - entering into the cranium, and draining down the spinal column. This water is called cerebral spinal fluid. For me, however, I was born with a cyst [a pillow of water] smack bang in the center of my cranium: meaning that CSF can enter into my brain - but it has no way of being drained. At 4months, a shunt - or a really long tube - was inserted into my skull: leading all the way down to my peritoneal cavity to drain the water.

Technology is a beautiful thing, and not a day goes by that I'm not grateful for the mere fact that this technology was available when I was born. It's honestly saved my life. However, when hormonal changes occur [hello, puberty]: lumps can form in the CSF causing blockages in the shunt.

So, while my first brain surgery was at the age of 4months: by the time I was 12, I'd had 24 surgeries - ten on my brain.

But there was a light.

During my longest stint in hospital, my elementary school teacher made me a cassette tape of songs to listen to when depressed - she named the mixtape: "Happy, Healthy Music" featuring songs from Blue Swede, Vonda Shepard, and, of course, the Spice Girls. Now, by today's standards, that list would probably look more like Twenty One Pilots, Linkin Park, Ed Sheeran, Carrie Underwood, and Alessia Cara, [and I'm here for it - Linkin Park was definitely one of my go-to bands that I turned to when I was in my darkest moments], but the fact remains: music is a hugely important part of one's mindset, mental health, and emotional health.

The question is: how are we going to use it?

I mentioned before that trauma looks different on all of us.

Yes, it is true that by the age of 12, I'd had 24 surgeries [which certainly opened the door to social isolation, bullying, and feeling like nobody understood me], but that's not the only reason why I was diagnosed with depression at such a young age [and I'll be honest: the advent of online socializing wasn't always the most healthy for me]. Simple fact is: by the age of 12, I had already been sexually assaulted multiple times. I'd already watched as some of my closest friends indulged in substance abuse... which ultimately led to one's suicide when he was just 20. Depression was a fact of life for both me, and many of my friends... at just 12.

As such, the music I started listening to moved away from the "happy, healthy music", and more towards songs about depression. Lyrics about dark times, suicidal thoughts, and overwhelming emotions started to make home in my head...

... and then I learned about the alchemy of songwriting.

Here's the thing: during dark times, struggling mental health, low emotional well-being and depression: music has the incredible power to literally reshape and redirect our mental state. Sure, it might begin with listening to songs about depression, but - with the right support, coaching, and guidance: those songs about depression can be redirected towards suicide prevention. With the right tools, songs about hurt, pain and sadness can be transformed into lyrics of reclaiming control of one's mindset.

Songwriting is such a powerful tool for alchemy - turning anxiety into discovering your inner fight. Your teenagers' songs about depression can be turned into lyrics about resilience, overcoming anxiety, and positive relationships with friends, family and the broader community.

Let's look at some examples.

Some of the best songs your teenager might be listening to at the moment that demonstrate this process could include:
  • Breathe Me - Sia

  • Day'N'Nite - Kid Cudi

  • Zero - Imagine Dragons

  • Lovely - Billie Eilish and Khalid

  • Mad World - Tears for Fears

  • u - Kendrick Lamar

  • Gravity - John Mayer

  • Weightless - Natasha Beddingfield

  • Scars to Your Beautiful - Alessia Cara

  • Fight Song - Rachel Platten

  • Rise Up - Andra Day

  • Last Hope - Paramore

And while these songs about depression - and overcoming depression - are powerful: the power behind equipping your teenager with the means to find and utilize the right words for themselves to express, understand and - ultimately - overcome their depression, anxiety and dark times.

In other words: the lyrics of Numb - Linkin Park, and Breathe Me - Sia are their lyrics: relatable, sure, but not authentically in alignment with your teenager's reality. In order for your teen to truly work through their depression: they need to be able to find their authentic verbiage. In order for your teenager to understand and overcome their anxiety: they need to be able to break down the multitude of overwhelming emotions they're feeling, and songwriting is an effective way to do this.

But... How?

In order to write a well-structured song, one of the key tricks is to "Keep It Simple, Superstar". For this reason, each song's lyrics need to be focused on one key issue. Whether it's a song about

  • anxiety

  • depression

  • feeling alone

  • suicide

  • hope

  • hurt

  • wanting to cry

  • panic

  • a breakup

  • losing control

  • losing a friend

.... it's important to keep each song directed towards a specific topic. By doing this: the songwriter [ie. your teenager] can start to recognize that while life can feel like it's too much: when you break everything down: life suddenly starts to feel more manageable.

As Will Smith says: just one brick at a time.

As Jordin Sparks says: one step at a time

As I say: Keep It Simple, Superstar.

Because we're not alone

Even if depression likes to make us think we are. We are a community. A tribe. And every tribe - going back centuries - has connected, celebrated, and lived through the sharing of music.

The trick is to make sure that the music your teenager is resonating, and leading with is their song. Their truth. Their lyrics.

To find out more about how songwriting can help your teenager, let's hop on a call to discuss how the alchemy of music could be the tool you've been looking for to help your teenager turn their struggles into song.
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