Are emos, goths and rockers at increased risk of self-harm and suicide?

GettyImages-106549410.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Every year three quarters of a million people take their own lives, and suicide is the leading cause of death in adolescents. Non-lethal self-harm is also prolific, leading annually to around 300,000 UK hospital visits, with even more going unreported. Knowing who is at most risk can inform support and prevention efforts. The higher rates of self-harm in LGBT and minority groups are well-established, and now a new review article in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology identifies other groups, including goths, emos and metalheads, who may also be at increased risk.

The British team, led by Mairead Anne Hughes at the University of Liverpool, searched both quantitative and qualitative papers on suicide and self-harm to find those that measured affiliation to a subculture – defined as marking oneself out through particular clothes, makeup, body art and musical preferences. They identified ten relevant papers, all but one involving people under 24.

In the quantitative research, a number of studies categorised participants based purely on their musical preferences (for example, based on subscriptions to Metal Edge magazine). These studies showed small associations between being a heavy metal fan and greater suicidal ideation and risk. However, in the one study that accounted for potential confounders, like having a negligent father and substance use, the link disappeared.

Looking at alternative subculture membership more generally, the team found two studies suggesting that moderate or stronger identification with a subculture is associated with a three times higher risk of self-harm and six times higher risk of suicide.

One explanation could simply be that people who self harm are more likely to gravitate to these subcultures. Consistent with this interpretation, the studies found associations between subculture membership and various pre-existing adversities, including bullying, difficult family relationships, and emotional and behavioural difficulties. On the other hand, several studies found that controlling for these pre-existing adversities did not eliminate the sub-culture/self-harm association.

Even stronger evidence comes from a longitudinal study of around 4,000 young people that found as participants became more affiliated with the subculture, their odds of self-harm increased, even after adjusting for factors like previous depression, victimisation, and history of self-harm. So this makes it unlikely that the sub-culture association with self-harm could be due entirely to selection effects.

This leaves two other major explanations. One is that self-harm is the consequence of the unasked for social consequences of being an emo, goth, or metaller – such as stigma, hate crime, and victimisation. The other is that subculture membership, by its very nature, encourages self-harm by modelling these behaviours in lyrics and through the example set by leading figures. 

Two qualitative papers explored this latter possibility, based on analysis of internet forum comments and on interviews with emo adolescents. Their conclusions support the idea that self-harm and suicide are accepted and normalised in these subcultures, including praising of acts of self harm. But Hughes and her colleagues wondered if the data could have been interpreted differently, and they noted that online chat forums have a “performative quality” that doesn’t always give the best sense of what is really going on in people’s lives. Also, it’s worth noting that a fascination with suicide and self-harm can also be found in mainstream culture, such as in the recent Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why.

As someone who grew up in alternative subcultures I can see the reasons for concern about contagion and modelling. I remember the breathless reporting around Manic Street Preachers’ guitarist Richey Edward’s cutting, and the preoccupation with the destruction of the body found in my industrial music. But what resonates with me even more is when Hughes and her colleagues note how alternative culture uses morbid imagery and content in a self-aware, playful and even deflationary way. For instance, they may be dark, but the songs on From Here to Infirmary by punk/emo band Alkaline Trio, are as wry as the title. Talking about ugly or dangerous thoughts can put them into perspective, and to laugh at it can banish it. As we’ve reported before, there is evidence that having heavy metal in your life can actually be a protective factor.

Based on their current research review, Hughes and her team conclude that “there is currently not adequate evidence to draw conclusions that these alternative subcultures themselves are in any way harmful.” But being a member is associated with elevated risks, some of which accrue over time, which is enough of a reason to give it our attention. This could be through addressing stigmatisation; providing education for people who work with youth from these groups about warning signs and routes for accessing support; and providing psychology services that appeal to people who may be anti-establishment in temperament, but who could do with help in processing what they need to sort through.

This corrosion: A systematic review of the association between alternative subcultures and the risk of self‐harm and suicide

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

13 thoughts on “Are emos, goths and rockers at increased risk of self-harm and suicide?”

  1. “The other is that subculture membership, by its very nature, encourages self-harm by modelling these behaviours in lyrics and through the example set by leading figures.” I’m sorry, but as an “emo” myself, I would like to point out that only a majority of “leading figures” give out this impression, and that the majority do /not/ set an example (instead rather discouraging such acts), and the lyrical content of songs ought to be analysed in a different manner – yes, some songs indicate to self harm, but most do not do that in an encouraging way, and that highlighting the minority and ignoring the majority is not a good idea.

    “Their conclusions support the idea that self-harm and suicide are accepted and normalised in these subcultures, including praising of acts of self harm.” This is not true. Internet forums are not the most reliable place, and from my experience in the emo/metalhead subculture, I have never seen praise for self-harm, but rather people trying to help them stop. There are a vast majority of reasons why someone who self harms may be drawn into the subculture (e.g. the lyrical content connects with them on an emotional level) and yes, there are a lot of people who self harm in the emo/metalhead community (e.g. I used to as well), most responses are not to do that, and offers of support and help. To imply the emo subculture normalises self-harm by praising such acts merely increases the stigma that all emos and metalheads self-harm and are suicidal – this could then lead to more bullying (I myself still get teased for being “emo”, with jokes being made about me going home and self-harming) which, in turn, could lead to more self-harming.

    While it is important that certain groups may be at a higher risk than others, I would recommend using more sources other than internet forums to form conclusions on such matters (such as social media) in order to get a more realistic view.

    1. Hi Jace. Did you see that the first quote you introduced was me summarising a potential explanation, and that I went on to suggest that both that and the second quote were not ultimately endorsed by the study authors or myself? I think that there is no substantial disagreement between us therefore, unless I’m misreading something.


      1. I did see that explanation, however I brought that issue up as you later fail to make the point that it is the minority of the “leading figures” that give out this impression; you instead refer to the Manic Street Preachers and Alkaline Trio as example. I was merely pointing out the dangers of highlighting the minority and twisting it into it seemingly being the majority, as you did in this article. I was making the point that the bands you highlighted do not represent the majority of the emo subculture and that the majority are, in fact, the opposite of the impression you suggest. To suggest such a thing could possibly worsen the stigma already surrounding the emo subculture which could then lead to more bullying – which, in turn, could lead to more self harm and the increase in the notion that all emos self harm: a point which I raised in my second paragraph.

      2. Jace, I’m not sure we are disagreeing. I bring up a memory that springs to mind (the Manic’s cutting imagery) as an anecdote to show why I recognise that people may have these concerns, but then I go on to rebut this with the second example in the Alkaline Trio. So your argument that these bands are the opposite of the rest of emo culture I don’t understand – opposite in what way? I lay out that the AT don’t present a simplistic naive endorsement of darkness or self-harm. So the rest of emo culture… does? I’m sure that’s not what you mean but I don’t know what you do mean.

        As to your argument that my writing could be harmful, this I find a little hard to take seriously. To recap, you are talking about writing where I muse on two different examples that in isolation support different conclusions, but together suggest a more nuanced picture, and where I emphasise that if anything the music / lifestyle may be protective. I don’t see the harm in this, and I think it’s unhelpful to make such accusations when you encounter perspectives you disagree with.

      3. This research instantly reminded me of Eysenck’s 1960s research “proving” that the median IQ of Black Americans was significantly lower than that of White Americans. It caused huge outrage… Eysenck couldn’t understand that, quite apart from the statistical probity of the study, most psychologists were asking themselves, ‘why ask the question?’

        An emotional response perhaps, but I am asking myself that, especially since the research is entitled “This Corrosion… ”

        I find it hard to reconcile the findings with my experience of assessing suicide risk using suicide risk assessment tools, and especially dynamic factors.

        What we have here is a dependent variable (affiliation) being treated as an independent variable when it is not. Methodologically, all the possible valid variables are dependent. If we knew which could be treated as an independent variables we wouldn’t need to do the research.

  2. If people started treating each other better they wouldn’t resort to self harm to cope with emotions and emo music to feel understood

  3. A very interesting article. And while I agree with somewhat is said, I would like to correct that lethal self-harm and suicide are two completely different matters. Having lost someone very close to lethal self-harm accident, I believe it is important to present statistics in a more accurate way. People who self-harm do not intend to end their lives. Quite opposite they are fighting to survive, unfortunately using very dangerous coping mechanisms. Possibly more needs to be done to raise awareness and acquire data about lethal self-harm incidents. Many particular young people don’t even realize that it can lead to death.


    1. Hi Eva, we didn’t directly discuss lethal self-harm here but we agree that self-harm needs to be carefully considered.

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