In 2017, Grammy-awarded rapper and producer Logic released “1-800-273-8255”, an emotional anthem named after the suicide prevention hotline. The song, which features Alessia Cara and Khalid, starts off from the perspective of someone suffering from depression who calls the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, confessing that they “Don’t want to be alive”. But, ultimately, the song delivers a message of hope. “You don’t gotta die, I want you to be alive,” the second verse starts off, delivered from the perspective of the supportive person at the other end of the hotline.
The song proved an instant hit, reaching number three in the US Billboard charts and garnering over 430 million views for the official music video. Many listeners identified with the track’s message, some sharing their story on social media and how the song helped them keep their own thoughts of suicide at bay.
Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, an associate professor at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, investigated whether these anecdotal reports actually reflected a change in suicide numbers across the country.
“There have been some experimental studies which suggest that stories of recovery and help-seeking for suicidal ideation can reduce suicidal ideation in the audience. But we have not yet had a chance to investigate this effect in the population at large, because stories of hope and recovery rarely receive a large audience such as the Logic song did,” Niederkrotenthaler told ZME Science.
Niederkrotenthaler and colleagues examined the association between Logic’s song and the number of daily calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, as well as daily suicides in the US. The numbers were crunched over three particularly important timeframes: the song’s release, and live performances at the Music Awards in 2017 and the Grammy Awards in 2018. Using data from Twitter posts, in the 34 days period immediately after each there events, public attention was the strongest.
Across these periods, there were an extra 9,915 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an increase of 6.9% over the expected number. Furthermore, there was a reported reduction of 245 suicides, which represents a very significant 6.9% drop relative to the expected number.
“This indicates that the song had a strong effect on help-seeking from the Lifeline, and simultaneously, there was a noteworthy drop in suicides,” said Niederkrotenthaler, who only found out about the song in 2020, “already nearly three years after its release! So we thought we needed to be quick in compiling an analysis,” he added.
The study is observational and there was no formal attempt to establish a causal relationship, but the very significant increase in calls to the suicide hotline, as well as the drop in suicides, suggest the song had an important influence.
“From experimental studies, we know that there are a few mechanisms that might help explain the effects. Basically, individuals in crisis who identify with the song might be most encouraged to seek help just like the character in Logic’s song (the Lifeline is prominently featured in the song), and they might think about how they can, just like the protagonist in Logic’s video, overcome and cope with their crisis. This might include seeking help from the Lifeline, getting other professional help, speaking with friends, finding love, etc, all of these are featured in the video,” said Niederkrotenthaler.
The Washington Post reported that people routinely told Logic that his music saved their lives.
“In my mind, I was like, ‘Man I wasn’t even trying to save anybody’s life,'” he said. “And then it hit me — the power that I have as an artist with a voice. I wasn’t even trying to save your life. Now what could happen if I actually did?”
Logic was in contact with representatives of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ahead of the song’s release. John Draper, the organization’s director, praised the song.
“By sharing these stories of recovery from individuals who have been there and have survived their own crises, we can change the conversation about suicide from one of tragedy and isolation to one of hope,” Draper said in a statement. “It’s an honor for us to be working alongside Logic to help people in despair find hope and meaning.”
Years later, there’s now evidence that Logic’s efforts truly paid off, potentially saving hundreds of lives. Further work is needed, however, in order to establish the exact psychological mechanisms of action that enable a song to lift people out of their darkest hour.
“The study highlights that it is of the highest importance to communicate about how to cope with severe adversities and crisis situations, in order to help prevent suicide—and to get help, which is available, for example, from the Lifeline!” said Niederkrotenthaler.