Rhyme, rhythm and wit are making life bearable for a group of depression sufferers, writes Pete Cashmore.
There is a man lying in bed, prone, on a Sunday. It is 11.15am and he is spent, evacuated of energy. BBC Radio 5 Live fizzes away in the background, but his brain is not processing it. Eventually, he manages to tap into a submerged reserve of energy and hauls himself up, groaning, to achieve something he has been physically unable to do for nearly three hours – get out of bed, walk to the toilet and execute a wee. Then he goes back to bed again, aching from the effort. That man is me.
There is a man in a bar in Wolverhampton, central England, being cheered by a room full of young people. In his hometown, he has just been declared the unanimous winner in what might loosely be called a battle of wits with Sprungy, an experienced Liverpudlian rapper, as part of the city's growing Barmageddon rap battle scene. After the result is announced, he leaves the bar to calm down outside and is stopped several times by strangers who tell him he smashed it. That man is me.
In February, in the middle of a brutal spell of depression, I made my first ham-fisted attempt to take my own life. A month later I took part in my first rap battle in London and, narrowly, won. Nine months later I'm under no illusions about why I'm still here. It's not because of medication, because every one I have tried has had unbearable side effects, from evaporating libido to explosive diarrhoea. And it's not because of diet and exercise, because if I was basing any hopes of recovery on the quality of the former and the preponderance of the latter, I would be long gone. I'm still here because I took up battle rap.
If it seems unbecoming for a man of 38 to be insulting my acquaintances in rhyme on a Saturday afternoon, I can tell you that the frustrating, infantilising effect of depression has made me do far more juvenile and irrational things in the privacy of my own home just to silence the chatter in my head. And I'm not alone. Since going public about my struggles with depression, I've been contacted by enough battle rappers, both male and female and all with experiences of depression, to fill an entire event with artists who most fans would consider "top tier".
"It's kind of like a chance to talk back to all the demons you're fighting with," said West London's Mr13, one of the best rappers in the all-conquering Don't Flop league, which gave me my debut. "No opponent can say more hurtful things than your own personal demons. Every time you battle, it's like you are confronting them straight on, which gives you a sense of accomplishment. Plus, you can channel all your anger and frustrations into creative insults, which is a form of stress release to me."
Fife's superb Jed "Soul" Mitchell even thinks that his depression gives him an advantage: "Thinking about it logically, it's easier to damage the self-perception of someone with high and fragile esteem than someone whose esteem is low. I'm sure being unable to be hurt by anything they say can only be a good thing. It's like being a boxer with a head made of granite."
A study of 50 000 people carried out between 2006 and 2008 by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found a positive relationship between cultural participation and depression, with the results stating: "There is less depression among men who participate in cultural activities."
The same study suggested that this was not true of women, which is perhaps why the almost exclusively male world of battle rap is so attractive to depressive men. What's definite is that, in the battle community, I have found all those things that a doctor will tell you to seek out when you first go to them and broach the subject of depression: regular activities to occupy your time, an outlet – creative or otherwise – through which to channel aggressive and negative feelings, reasons to engage with others and travel, and something to think about before bedtime when the chatter threatens to take over your head again. It sounds melodramatic to say that battle rap has saved my life, but, well, it has certainly made it a lot more habitable.
"There is evidence that some activities, such as singing or exercising, can make mood-lifting hormones," said clinical psychologist Dr Polly Fitch.
"I have worked with people who listen to rap because it expresses ideas that they feel but can't say. I'm guessing that for depression sufferers, writing insulting lyrics is the equivalent of punching a pillow. It represents a creative way of expressing anger, disgust or frustration. And it takes you out of yourself, gives you a feeling of connection – it works on many levels."
When a depressive looks at themselves, they see nothing of worth, a partial person, a wretched loser so in thrall to the strange machinations of their own mind that they have to pat themselves on the back and give themselves a gold star just for getting up, getting out and completing their working day. When I battle, I start feeling like a whole person again. Okay, a few people might get insulted along the way, but I think that's a small price to pay. – © Guardian News & Media 2012