About half of teenage goths have deliberately harmed themselves or attempted suicide, a new study suggests. But joining the modern subculture – which grew out of the 1980s gothic rock scene – may actually protect vulnerable children, researchers say.
The study followed 1258 young people who were interviewed at ages 11, 13, 15 and 19. It found that of those who considered themselves goths, 53% had self-harmed and 47% had tried to commit suicide. The average prevalence of self-harm among young people in the UK is 7% to 14%. Self-harm includes behaviours such as cutting or burning oneself. And about 6% of young people admit suicide attempts. Some studies suggest the incidence is rising in society.
Researchers at University of Glasgow found that while most self-harmers started the practice at age 12 to 13, they did not become goths until they were a couple of years older, on average.
“One common suggestion is they may be copying subcultural icons or peers [when they self-harm], but our study found that more young people reported self-harm before, rather than after, becoming a goth. This suggests that young people with a tendency to self-harm are attracted to the goth subculture,” says Robert Young, who led the study.
“Rather than posing a risk, it's also possible that by belonging to the goth subculture, young people are gaining valuable social and emotional support from their peers.” But he cautions: “However, the study was based on small numbers and replication is needed to confirm our results.” Only 25 participants felt strongly associated with goth culture.
Self-harming, Young says, is a behaviour that people often employ as a mechanism to deal with negative emotions. “It may be used as a quick-fix. Some physiological studies have shown that endorphins [brain chemicals that produce a feeling of well-being] are released after episodes of self-harm,” he told New Scientist.
Just 2% of the adolescents in the study identified with goth culture, although 8% said they had identified with it at some point in their lives. But it is a strongly non-violent and accepting subculture, which teens may find offers a supportive environment.
Michael van Beinum, a psychiatrist for children and adolescents, who advised on the study, agrees: “For some young people with mental health problems, a goth subculture may be attractive as it may allow them to find a community within which it may be easier for their distress to be understood.”
The 1980s goth culture grew out of the post-Punk movement and underwent a revival in the mid-1990s. Central to goth belief is the black aesthetic – taking icons that society regards as evil, such as skull imagery, and making them beautiful.
Journal reference: British Medical Journal (vol 332, p 909)
Source: New Scientist