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We Spoke to the Two Doctors Who Think Hip-Hop Can Help Battle Mental Illness

It's already been a source of empowerment for many, but how else can it help?

Earlier this month, a couple of academics announced that they intended to use hip-hop as a means of removing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses like schizophrenia, addiction and depression. Of course, mental health is something that should be treated with sensitivity and restraint, so needless to say some outlets went as far as catapulting the story along the far-fetched link-bait lines of "HIP-HOP CURES DEPRESSION" and "NEW TREATMENT FOR MENTAL ILLNESS". The initiative – dubbed Hip Hop Psych – is the brainchild of Dr Becky Inkster, a neuroscientist at the Cambridge University department of psychiatry, and Dr Akeem Sule, a consultant psychiatrist from the South Essex Partnership Trust. I decided to head down to the Cambridge Festival of Ideas earlier this week, to hear the pair outline some of their designs, and properly determine how hip-hop could be beneficial to doctors.


It might seem outlandish that rap can aid mental illness, but it’s not outrageously far-fetched. Since its early roots in the politically-deprived ganglands of the South Bronx, hip-hop culture has provided MCs, turntablists, B-boys and graffiti artists with an important source of empowerment. For three decades, it's offered an outlet for the apparently powerless to express themselves and a way of giving voice to their problems. If one truth in psychology is universally acknowledged, it’s that you can’t deal with pain without talking about it. What’s less known, though, is that hip-hop is steeped in explicit and implicit references to mental illness. From Stan’s Borderline Personality Disorder to Tupac’s paranoia and psychosis, hip-hop lyrics are rich with insights into the symptoms of illnesses and the risk factors prevalent within peer groups, families and gangs. Last year, scientific research showed that gang membership is closely linked to an increased risk of psychiatric problems, and Hip Hop Psych looks to use J Cole and Kendrick as teaching tools to help combat them. People – and politicians – at last seem to be latching onto the idea that research into mental health is as important as research into physical health, and hip-hop is one way Dr Inkster and Dr Asule think can help. During their talk at the Cambridge festival, the speakers conduct a poll of the large auditorium asking how many people had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness. 28% are yes. “I think it sends a loud and clear message,” says Inkster. “Hip-hop is very visual. It’s very loud. Very expressive. So it’s a great medium to use to get this message across. Michelle Obama uses hip-hop to help fight childhood obesity, so we’re confident we can do the same thing to tackle mental health.”


There are three tiers to preventing mental illness, and Sule believes Hip Hop Psych has the ability to work along all three of them. “Primary is about having an understanding, so we’re basically intervening at the primary level now," he says. "We’re creating education. Then secondary’s about early recognition and treatment. And tertiary’s when there’s a full established diagnosis system.” Take-up of psychological treatments by ethnic minorities is historically quite low, so he says that they’ll aim to work with music therapists, using hip-hop to refine therapies and make them more culturally sensitive. These new techniques may involve getting patients to channel their feelings into rhymes and beats. All this is happening as an increasing number of big-game hip-hop artists start to chip into the dialogue about mental health. You may have read Pro Green’s poignant Comment Is Free which dealt with his dad's suicide, more recently his song "Lullaby" which focused on his own spells of depression, or the compelling Suicide Survivors doc he headed up for Radio 1. Similarly, Kid Cudi opened up about his battle with antidepressants in a Complex Magazine cover feature last year, while J Cole’s participation in Soul Culture’s #OKNotToBeOK campaign has also done a pretty good job at raising awareness. Meanwhile, charities like Key Changes already encourage youths suffering from mental illnesses to express their feelings through urban music, with many other localised charities are now doing the same. Hip Hop Psych is the next logical step: a credible connector between the medical and hip-hop worlds.

Events like Monday’s performance at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas – where Big Dada man Juice Aleem popped along for a chat - will also help those with or without these illnesses better understand the tell-tale signs. Inkster and Sule dissected hip-hop songs for the audience, to examine symptoms of mental illness and diagnose the creative minds behind them. For example, by anatomising Eminem’s sometimes subtle wordplay and prosody, Sule conducted a thorough psychological autopsy of BPD sufferer “Stan”, commenting on phenomena like attachment theory, splitting, the various effects of downers and uppers, and chronic feelings of emptiness. Inkster did similar, offering a neuroscientific twist on Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, cunningly applying his lyrics to demonstrate the threatening neurotoxic effects of alcohol misuse and addiction. There was something totally satisfying and gripping about rubbing the hip-hop standards in scientific lingo like this, and I came away feeling like I’d learnt a billion things. More PSHE lessons should probably be like that.

With an article titled ‘A Hip-Hop State of Mind’ being published in the Lancet Psychiatry later this week, it seems Hip Hop Psych intends to become an interface through which medics, the public, hip-hop artists, and mental health charities from across the country can collaborate. Currently, Sule and Inkster say they want to build up charities - like the London-based, male depression-targeted Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) - as well as hook up with pioneering mental health charity Mind. They may not have found a cure, but Hip Hop Psych may well provide a strong basis for future treatment of mental illness. Ventures like this will certainly help demystify the stigma surrounding not only psychiatric issues, but also that surrounding the genre itself.

Follow Huw on Twitter: @HuwOliver