Music & Mental Health Among College Students

Music & Mental Health Among College Students

A look into how music is helping college students with their mental health issues while studying at the University of South Florida


In a bedroom off campus, University of South Florida sophomore Will Laurie scrolled through Instagram when suddenly, something in him didn't feel right. He got up and started pacing the room, his body shaking. He was scared. Walking back and forth as his breath became sporadic, he searched his mind for something that would soothe this frantic feeling. Laurie was having a panic attack.

Laurie had been experiencing small episodes of anxiety and panic attacks during the previous eight months, starting in April 2017 during the spring semester of his Freshman year. In the same month Come Out of The Dark, USF's student lead mental health organization, held its first annual "Out of the Darkness Walk" which Laurie attended. That was his first interaction with the group before becoming a regular attendee a year later in Spring 2018, and then the treasurer in Fall 2018.
Come Out of the Dark was born in 2014 from a grassroots campaign to create positive conversation about depression but eventually refocused on mental health as a whole to raise awareness and encourage science-based dialogue to end the stigma surrounding mental health.

With 40 million U.S. adults suffering from an anxiety disorder, 75 percent of them experience their first episode of anxiety by the age of 22. Lack of money, loneliness, changing schools, stress, and social, cultural or academic expectations are all experiences that college students are exposed to. These are also environmental factors that can contribute to mental health problems.

While anxiety and depression rank as the most common, other types of mental health issues students might experience are eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, struggles with identity, self-harm, bipolar disorder, addiction, and suicide. In fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that 80 per cent of students feel stress on a daily basis, and while some stress during college is expected, continuous stress can lead to more serious and harmful issues. While the conversation around mental health is growing, so is the number of college students experiencing mental health problems.

According to a study by the Penn State University Centre for Collegiate Mental Health, the number of students seeking mental health support jumped 50 per cent between 2015 and 2016. Therapy is one of the best actions one can take to manage their mental health, but with many Florida universities having around 2,000 students to one counselor, students may not be able to access it as much as they would like. Therefore students are finding other ways to manage and cope.

Activities like yoga and meditation have become more common on campus, as well as meeting groups like USF's Come Out of the Dark, Active Minds, and QTPOC & Coffee. Laurie's love for music motivated him to recently host a Come Out of the Dark meeting discussing mental health's influence on hip-hop and its artists, and vice versa.

"Hearing Kid Cudi and Kanye West talk about their personal struggles on KIDS SEE GHOSTS helped me realize that I could easily talk about music and mental health," said Laurie.

For someone that struggled with major self-esteem issues growing up, Laurie found confidence and assurance in Kanye West's music and overt ego. "I didn't start listening to hip-hop until my sophomore year of high school. However, it had an instant effect on my psyche," said Laurie.

After Laurie's big panic attack, he feel into a month long depression. He often felt numb and would listen to music to pass the time. One of Kanye West's darker albums, 808's & Heartbreak, explores themes of heartache, loss, conflict, pain, and guilt. Listening to something so raw and honest helped Laurie acknowledging his own feelings and helped him feel less lonely in his struggle.

"I'm not sure if it's just the music that helps but it's also the time, listening through the whole album and relating to those feelings, then moving on to other music, eventually I wouldn't feel as bad," said Laurie.

Root Christophersen, another USF student who has previously studied audio production, used to work with children with disabilities and used music to calm them and help them become motivated to do tasks they found difficult.

"Using music they enjoy or even introducing them to new sounds can help them to expand their thinking and cognitive functions, going 'outside the box' of their current mental state without having to move physically," said Christophersen.

With a strong passion for music, Christophersen also uses it for his own self-therapy. "Relating to and communing with artists that speak truth about real-world occurrences/events helps me to remember and realize deeper that I am not the only one who goes through experiences, that we are all connected in many ways, and more alike than different."

Experiencing a new schooling environment can be a challenge for anyone, but for British exchange student, Dani Cowell, that change also comes with unusual cultures, social rules, different weather, a change from UK to U.S. English, and new academic expectations. She has spent the last two months meeting new people and adjusting to American culture and life as a USF Bull.
"I've been pretty homesick, which is normal but it's hard to manage without the support system of friends and family that I'm used to having," said Cowell.

The English Major has suffered from depression on-and-off for the last few years and has been using drawing and music as coping mechanisms since arriving. "It helps me to focus and concentrate on what I'm feeling," said Cowell. "I love listening to songs by Young The Giant, Hippo Campus and Lorde, they make me feel better."

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To The Person Who Feels Suicidal But Doesn't Want To Die

Suicidal thoughts are not black and white.

Everyone assumes that if you have suicidal thoughts that means you want to die.

Suicidal thoughts are thought of in such black-and-white terms. Either you have suicidal thoughts and you want to die, or you don't have suicidal thoughts and you want to live. What most people don't understand is there are some stuck in the gray area of those two statements, I for one am one of them.

I've had suicidal thoughts since I was a kid.

My first recollection of it was when I came home after school one day and got in trouble, and while I was just sitting in the dining room I kept thinking, “I wonder what it would be like to take a knife from the kitchen and just shove it into my stomach." I didn't want to die, or even hurt myself for that matter. But those thoughts haven't stopped since.

I've thought about going into the bathroom and taking every single pill I could find and just drifting to sleep and never waking back up, I've thought about hurting myself to take the pain away, just a few days ago on my way to work I thought about driving my car straight into a tree. But I didn't. Why? Because even though that urge was so strong, I didn't want to die. I still don't, I don't want my life to end.

I don't think I've ever told anyone about these feelings. I don't want others to worry because the first thing anyone thinks when you tell them you have thoughts about hurting or killing yourself is that you're absolutely going to do it and they begin to panic. Yes, I have suicidal thoughts, but I don't want to die.

It's a confusing feeling, it's a scary feeling.

When the depression takes over you feel like you aren't in control. It's like you're drowning.

Every bad memory, every single thing that hurt you, every bad thing you've ever done comes back and grabs you by the ankle and drags you back under the water just as you're about the reach the surface. It's suffocating and not being able to do anything about it.

The hardest part is you never know when these thoughts are going to come. Some days you're just so happy and can't believe how good your life is, and the very next day you could be alone in a dark room unable to see because of the tears welling up in your eyes and thinking you'd be better off dead. You feel alone, you feel like a burden to everyone around you, you feel like the world would be better off without you. I wish it was something I could just turn off but I can't, no matter how hard I try.

These feelings come in waves.

It feels like you're swimming and the sun is shining and you're having a great time until a wave comes and sucks you under into the darkness of the water. No matter how hard you try to reach the surface again a new wave comes and hits you back under again, and again, and again.

And then it just stops.

But you never know when the next wave is going to come. You never know when you're going to be sucked back under.

I always wondered if I was the only one like this.

It didn't make any sense to me, how did I think about suicide so often but not want to die? But I was thinking about it in black and white, I thought I wasn't allowed to have those feelings since I wasn't going to act on them. But then I read articles much like this one and I realized I'm not the only one. Suicidal thoughts aren't black and white, and my feelings are valid.

To everyone who feels this way, you aren't alone.

I thought I was for the longest time, I thought I was the only one who felt this way and I didn't understand how I could feel this way. But please, I implore you to talk to someone, anyone, about the way you're feeling, whether it be a family member, significant other, a friend, a therapist.

My biggest mistake all these years was never telling anyone how I feel in fear that they would either brush me off because “who could be suicidal but not want to die?" or panic and try to commit me to a hospital or something. Writing this article has been the greatest feeling of relief I've felt in a long time, talking about it helps. I know it's scary to tell people how you're feeling, but you're not alone and you don't have to go through this alone.

Suicidal thoughts aren't black and white, your feelings are valid, and there are people here for you. You are not alone.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — 1-800-273-8255

Cover Image Credit: BengaliClicker

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5 Tips To Help You Feel Better If You're Sick

A few helpful tips if there's a bug going around.


Not to brag, but I don't get sick very often, maybe once a year. When I do find myself a little under the weather, there's a few things I like to do for a faster recovery. I have no idea if any of these are 100% accurate, but I'd like to think they do. None of these will immediately make you feel better, but they'll help quicken the process.

Drink lots of water.

This one is a no-brainer, but it can be hard to do sometimes. I know when I'm sick, I definitely don't think about it. Water can help flush toxins out of your body, makes you hydrated, and can help you feel more awake and energized! If you're not a huge water drinker like I am, Tea also helps.

Stay home.

If you're sick, it's honestly better if you just take a day off and focus on feeling better. If you're worried about going to school or work, it's better that you don't spread anything. Let me just say, I'm fairly certain the last time I caught something was because someone behind me in a class was coughing through the entire lecture.


This one goes with the last point, but sleeping will help your immune system fight off any infections. It's good to take some time off and get any extra sleep you can.

Clean everything.

I like to wash all of my clothes and bed sheet, because they're what I wear and touch the most, especially my pillow cases. This will help get rid of some germs and stop them from spreading. It's also good to disinfect anything you touch often, like doorknobs and table surfaces.

Take medicine.

This one also sounds like a no brainer, but seriously if you expect to feel better soon you should be taking some sort of medicine. At the very least, it'll help with your symptoms, so you're not couching or sneezing every couple minutes.

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