Subcultures, Self-Harm and Psychology

Moral panics have been around as long as there was some outside force to blame for ‘ruining children’ rather than ignorance, neglect or wilful bloody-mindedness. Three years ago I was talking to The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, about a brand new research study that linked alternative subcultures – like goth – with higher instances of self-harm and suicidal tendencies.

Fast-forward to April 2018, and a brand new research study has been released that links alternative subcultures – like goth – with higher instances of self-harm and suicidal tendencies. Experiencing some deja-vu? You should be – the 2015 study was one of the twelve that was selected and sifted for this uber review, looking to dig into whether or not there was a clear link between listening to Bauhaus, and wanting to take your own life or hurt yourself.

Photo Courtesy: Thomas Tadeus Bak

The bottom line to this comprehensive twenty page report, kindly provided to me by the very helpful University of Manchester’s Media Relations Department, and author Dr Peter Taylor?

It’s unclear.

After three years and eleven more studies there is still no firm conclusion that being a member of an alternative subculture will lead to an increased risk of self-harm and suicide. There is, again, some correlation but no indication of causation. Indeed, one theory advanced by the paper is that

“Young people who are vulnerable to low mood and self-harm may be attracted to groups with peers of similar difficulties who validate their experiences through music lyrics. This theory implies that a vulnerability to self-harm and suicide may be the cause of alternative subculture affiliation rather than a consequence.” (Emphasis mine). 

I contacted Dr Taylor through the Media Relations office, and he kindly clarified his thoughts to me, saying “We also note in the paper – and have commented in interviews – that these subculture[s] can be hugely positive for many people offering a place of support and belonging.”

And yet…

Even accounting for the idea that young people attracted to alternative subcultures might already be vulnerable to such behavior, Dr Taylor said “I think the data … does not fully explain away the relationship. For example even studies accounting for this sort of vulnerability still see an association.” 

Even after the books have been balanced, it seems inescapable that those who self-identify with goth, emo, punk or metal have an increased tendency towards self-destructive patterns.
Credit to Dr Taylor and his co-authors, one of his theories for contributing factors to the low mental-health and well-being of people in alternative subcultures, is their victimization. He mentions the tragic experiences of Sophie Lancaster, a thankfully isolated scenario, in particular.

Of course, those who ‘know better’ – like the mainstream media – would say that the associating with gruesome imagery and dolorous music is obviously depressing us. The research touches on the dark and foreboding appearance of alternative subcultures, pointing out that nobody has actually measured the correlation.

“It has also been suggested that the morbid aesthetic associated with certain alternative subcultures (e.g., Emo, Goth), results in increased exposure to images and themes linked to self-harm and suicide (Trnka et al., 2017), but again empirical support is
lacking.”

Indeed, one of my favourite lines that indicates a certain awareness amongst the researchers reads “the morbid and subversive imagery found within some alternative subcultures such as Goth can also be balanced with a sense of camp and self-irony”!

Well, they’re not wrong! I especially appreciate them titling the study “This Corrosion”…

I was very concerned about the media reporting of this study, as they inevitably go for the easiest conclusion regardless of whether it’s correct. I fired a few questions over to Dr Taylor, and he responded candidly and in detail for which I am very grateful.

[The author] correctly states “The public and media have at times, unhelpfully, demonised alternative subcultures and music as a cause of problems including self-harm.”
However as a result of there being no evidence for why members of alternative subcultures might be at a greater risk, the media reports on Dr Taylor’s study now seems to be leading readers to believe that merely being involved in a subculture may cause an increased risk of self-harm and suicide.

Dr Peter Taylor: This was a notable concern of mine (being someone who was and still is very much a fan of alternative music, and who grew up within these subcultures), and hence the reason we emphasised the way the media has at times been unhelpful.
In the paper we make it very clear that we are not suggesting that simply being a part of such subcultures leads to self-harm, and I have tried to make this very clear when speaking with journalists about this study.

My feeling is that it is important to identify groups that are at elevated risk of self-harm within our society, to better support those who might be struggling with these difficulties and raise awareness where this issue might otherwise go unnoticed. As noted in the paper the actual mechanism that links subculture affiliation to self-harm is still unclear and requires more research. There are various plausible mechanisms worth looking at – including the stress associated with being part of a minority group and victimisation some individuals face. We also note in the paper (and have commented in interviews) that these subculture[s] can be hugely positive for many people offering a place of support and belonging.
We have recently finished some further research trying to better unpick why young people in these subcultures might be more at risk of self-harm, but more work is still needed.


In the end I am reassured that research has again found out being into an alternative subculture like goth is not an inevitable prerequisite to mental health issues and harm. What it has done has identified a slightly higher correlation between these two tendencies, without establishing what links them! In the absence of a concrete conclusion, people will try to apportion blame to something they struggle to comprehend. I maintain a watchful eye on such research.

I’m also enthused by the work of other academics such as Professor Catherine Spooner, whose latest book is subtitled ‘Rise of the Happy Gothic’ in which she explores the goth subculture through texts and media that shed new light on hitherto unseen strands of this complex scene. Based more in cultural studies than psychology, it’s nevertheless an important and informed analysis of the subculture.

She also wrote an article in 2015 responding to the last time we were on this mournful carousel, so I am delighted to end on an academic conclusion I can strongly identify with.

“The image of the Goth teenager as a depressed loner is a pervasive one. But it is not one that Goths tend to choose for themselves. Goth subculture produces images of itself that are variously glamorous, romantic, whimsical, melodramatic, erotic, mundane – and above all humorous.”

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One Response to Subcultures, Self-Harm and Psychology

  1. weepingcross says:

    Thank you for highlighting this again. I thought there were methodological problems with the 2015 study when it came out: http://hearthofmopsus.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/these-are-not-necessarily-facts.html

    Like

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