Over the past week a study in the Lancet Psychiatry has caused some headlines. The authors published a longitudinal study showing that people who identify as goths are more likely to score highly for depression and/or self-harm. Having had a few days to ponder over this, here’s some thoughts from me about the paper.
Declaration of interests: several years in my early 20s hanging out in dodgy rock clubs, dressed in black and plastered in eye shadow.
This isn’t the first time such a study has appeared in a medical literature. Back in 2006 the British Medical Journal published a very similar paper, finding an increased risk of self-harm and attempted suicide among goths. Neither the BMJ nor the Lancet papers go so far as to suggest that being a goth actually causes depression or self-harm (remember the scientific mantra: correlation does not equal causation). The Lancet does make some speculation about peer contagion, but ultimately provides the following caveats.
Although our findings suggest that youths who identify with the goth subculture might represent a vulnerable group, our observational findings cannot be used to claim that becoming a goth causes an increased risk of self-harm and depression. Although peer contagion might operate within the goth youth community, other factors such as stigma and social ostracising might represent the underlying mechanisms of increased risk. Working with youths in the goth community to identify those at risk of depression and self-harm and provide support might be effective. Public campaigns to reduce stigma and aggression targeted to individuals from diverse subcultures might also be important.
In yesterday’s Guardian there’s a response piece from music journalist Simon Price, who points out something that’s missing from the Lancet paper – any suggestion that being a goth might actually be helpful to somebody’s mental health.
While the Lancet article does hypothesise a certain degree of “peer contagion” (a fantastic phrase that’s crying out to be used as a goth band name or song title), in other words suggesting that hanging around with other goths intensifies and worsens one’s existing propensity for gloom, it fails to recognise the positive effects: using your appearance cathartically to externalise your feelings, drawing succour from encountering art that expresses those feelings, and membership of a larger group of people who broadly share them.
And if the gloom of gothdom is to some extent self-perpetuating, obliging you to wear your sadness like a badge of honour, it also channels those feelings in a harmless way. It’s often an incredibly positive influence, providing outlets for creativity in the realms of painting, poetry, fiction, fashion, burlesque, tattooing, film and comic art as well as music.
There’s an interesting question that I’ve occasionally pondered: why does listening to sad songs makes us feel good? Not just goth music but Leonard Cohen, the Smiths etc etc. Perhaps “good” isn’t the right word to use here; more “real”. As Price says, it provides externalisation and catharsis of our inner feelings. It draws out the bad inner feelings and enables you to say, “These are my thoughts and feelings. They are real and I own them. I can hold them and do something with them.” And that can be incredibly empowering, as you’ll known if you’ve ever lurched around your bedroom with Marilyn Manson on full blast.
What do we call it in mental health when we externalise bad inner thoughts and feelings so we can reify and process them, perhaps using art or music to do this? Ah yes, we call it “psychotherapy”. I’ve read a few interviews with rock musicians where they talk about this in non-psychotherapeutic language, often with references to “getting the anger out”. This is sometimes accompanied by an expectation that this will finish at some point. As in, “There’s probably only three more albums to go, and then I’ll have got all the anger out, and I’ll be done.” In other words, they’re looking ahead to the time when the self-induced course of therapy has been completed and they’ll be ready to move on.
Also, what do we call it when we promote an accepting environment of like-minded people that tell someone, “Yes, you feel bad, and yes, that’s okay.” We call it “peer support”. A point that Price describes vividly in the Guardian.
It’s not a new thing for people to get worked up that some other people are dressing in black and listening to uncomfortable music – anyone remember the infamous episode of Quincy ME that tried to educate parents that punk would turn their nice kids into murderers and drug addicts? But I really don’t think there’s a need to worry too much. In many cases, this may be far more therapeutic than harmful.
And of course, there will be many other cases where the individual has no mental health or emotional wellbeing issues, and simply likes the music and clothes.
It seems appropriate at this point to conclude with some music.