During the time that a song whose title is the number of a national suicide prevention helpline topped charts, calls to the helpline increased and suicides decreased, a new study shows. The song, “1-800-273-8255,” depicts a fictitious exchange between someone expressing suicidal thinking and an operator of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline who counsels a person and ultimately changes that person’s mind.
Leaders of the Lifeline and researchers who study suicide and media co-authored the study, which was published on Monday in the British Medical Journal. They found that three major events — the song’s release, the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, and the 2018 Grammy Awards — were correlated with increases in calls to the helpline and, overall, a significant reduction in suicides.
Josh Dominguez, 22, of California, said he was one of the people represented in that statistic. A longtime fan of Logic, the artist behind the song, Dominguez said he listened to “1-800-273-8255” shortly after its release in April 2017, when he was dealing with a recent breakup and the emotions of graduating from high school.
“I felt like I was at my lowest point, and it led me to call the number because I felt so lost,” he said. Speaking to one of the call operators at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was therapeutic, he said, and years later, he wrote a note to Logic telling him that his music saved his life.
Logic spoke in an interview with Genius about how interactions with his fans inspired him to write “1-800-273-8255.”
“They’ve said things like, ‘Yo, your music has saved my life,’” Logic said. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Man I wasn’t even trying to save nobody’s life. 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?”
The result was a chart-topping song that featured musical artists Alessia Cara and Khalid and, researchers said, offered one of the most rigorous tests of the “Papageno effect.” Named for a scene in the Mozart opera “The Magic Flute” in which where a character is persuaded not to kill himself, the phenomenon has been theorized to occur when despairing individuals consume media about positive coping and ways of overcoming suicidality, said John Draper, the executive director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and a co-author of the study. He added that the song’s true value may have been obscured, since its popularity peaked at the same time as that of the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” — which was associated with a spike in youth suicides.
“There’s still a great deal of power and media around promoting stories of hope and recovery, but it’s also a reminder that there is a tide that we have to swim against,” Draper said. “Most stories continue to be about suicides and hopelessness, and casting that shadow consistently in the media over people in despair can actually make a dark night darker.”
Draper said that he noticed a spike in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline after Logic performed “1-800-273-8255” at the Video Music Awards and Grammys and shared the call data with his co-author Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, associate professor of public health and research group lead for suicide prevention at the Medical University of Vienna, to determine the song’s statistical impact. The study’s authors conducted a regression analysis that estimated the effect of the song’s popular moments on the number of calls to the helpline and number of suicides, while accounting for negative effects due to “13 Reasons Why” and celebrity suicides. They found that the combination of the song’s release, and its live performances at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards and the 2018 Grammy Awards, were associated with a significant increase in calls and decrease in suicides.
Alexandra Pitman, an associate professor in general adult psychiatry at University College London, who was not involved in the research but wrote an accompanying editorial, said that dissecting the song could prove useful for the creators of mental health public service announcements, because there is not a good understanding of how to help people overcome suicidality. In addition to the song itself, she said that visuals — such as the award show performances that featured volunteers wearing shirts with the helpline number on them — were “quite powerful.”
The way the song is written may have also contributed to the success of its message, said Cliff Notez, a Boston-based musician and professor of songwriting at Berklee College of Music. By naming the song after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline but not referencing it in the lyrics, listeners are encouraged to take action by searching or calling the number. The song, Notez added, was intended for a pop audience and meant to be sung in stadiums.
“When you listen to the song, at face value, it doesn’t sound like a song about about suicide. It’s kind of hilarious, like one of the lyrics is like, ‘Who can relate? Woo!’” he said.
Importantly, there’s a long tradition of referencing mental health struggles and suicide in hip-hop music, from work by Grandmaster Flash to Kid Cudi. Logic, a biracial artist who makes music inspired by hip-hop and pop, effectively used the song to continue that conversation, even though “1-800-273-8255” has been criticized as pandering and corny.
“There’s a mental health crisis within the African American community, which goes unspoken because of many different reasons, whether it be distrust for the health care system in general, or stigma around the idea of mental illness,” Notez said. “The song may suck, but is that the most important part of what’s happening here? No, we’re trying to get something bigger out here, which is not talked about.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (Español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
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