Let's address the title of the article first. In no way was this meant to make light of depression, self harm, or suicide, rather it was meant to expose and parody the ridiculous headlines that have been showing up the last few days. If you believe the headlines, goths are clinically depressed, self harming, and suicidal. The scariest part, is I know how many people often read a headline and nothing else, drawing and cementing a conclusion in their minds, that is either misleading or completely inaccurate. This is something I hope that we in the goth community guard against, and I encourage everyone to not only read articles but to fact check and read the studies that are cited.
Now to the main topic, if you somehow missed it a new study "Risk of depression and self-harm in teenagers identifying with goth subculture: a longitudinal cohort study" was released on the 27 of August. While I've yet to see anyone actually link to the study, that hasn't stopped nearly every major news outlet in America and the UK from reporting on it.
As I was watching the largest moral panic regarding goths we've seen in several years unfold across the web; I was making mental notes as to what I would say on this blog. When it comes to a breakdown of the flaws in the study, sociologist Paul Hodkinson did a better job than I could. I suggest you read his article, but here is an excerpt:
"While its indication of a prevalence significantly higher than in other groups should be taken seriously, it is worth emphasising that the study does not show that most goths are either depressed or prone to self-harm – quite the contrary. This may be an obvious point but it is sometimes awfully easy to jump from one inference to another. Furthermore, in the case of those classified in the self-harm category, the study does not differentiate between types or levels of seriousness, nor does it show the regularity of such behaviour or whether it was recent. This is because this classification was based on answers to a single question: ‘have you ever hurt yourself on purpose in any way (eg, by taking an overdose of pills or by cutting yourself)’. Without underestimating the potential significance of minor or one-off forms of self-harming behaviour, this is not, it might be argued, a particularly high threshold and, crucially, it does not tell us whether the behaviour occurred within or before the aged 15-18 period focused on by the study."
I tried to switch gears at this point, and I went on to put together some of my other thoughts. Well, The Blogging Goth beat me to the punch, and put to words most of what I wanted to express, I recommend you give him a read, here's an excerpt:
"Mainstream society is suspicious and dismissive of problems like depression, whereas Goth is more familiar, more accepting of each other’s flaws. As a result, many people suffering will find themselves drawn to a more open society that actively disputes and rebels against mainstream opinions."
Finally there's this article, which details what we all already know, that being goth in fact, makes us happier:
"Whatever it was that united us, it wasn’t depression. Anecdotal evidence is the enemy of good science, but all I can tell you is that I and my gang of flamboyant romantic dandies spent every night of the week partying like the last days of Sodom, Gomorrah and Constantinople combined. If anyone was self-harming, we didn’t know about it , and if there was any standing on the edge of the dancefloor looking lonely, that was just commonplace shyness, and nothing a cheap pint of snakebite and black couldn’t cure."
At what age did you start identifying as "goth"? What appealed to you about it?
Though I grew up in a very conservative Christian home, I've always been drawn to a darker aesthetic. My first exposure was to metal culture freshmen year of high school, and my first exposure to goth was the following year at a music festival. So while I suppose I've always been seeking out the values, ideals, and aesthetics of goth, I didn't have a name to put to it until I was about 16. When I discovered a group of goths, it spoke to me on a fundamental level, when I walked into the tent holding the goth event, I felt as if I had been searching for something my entire life, without knowing it, and I had finally come home. I had never felt so understood and complete before that point.
What other subcultures did you notice, as your identity as a goth became stronger?
From high school forward I had interactions with many related subcultures, metalheads, and punks being the two most prominent. There was a friendship there in that we were all outsiders, however the ideals, values, expressions, and philosophies of the other groups had almost nothing in common with, and were often antithetical to goth.
It seems like goth is having a moment. What does "health goth" say to you?
Every few years, mainstream culture, or other groups mine goth for a source of inspiration or edginess, it's nothing new, though the media portrays it as though it was. Health goth specifically, is a health and fashion movement, that simply uses the word goth because they wear monochrome colors, and in my opinion, they appropriate the word goth in order to add a perceived legitimacy to their grouping. In reality there is nothing more to it than a clothing template. In the last 5 years groupings like this (the sociological term would be neo-tribes) have been popping up, using goth as an adjective, with little to no substance, meaning, or relation to goth. These neo-tribes are ephemeral transitive identities, with little to no depth and longevity for either the movement or the participant. In contrast goth is incredibly substantive, continues to persist 35 years on, and while some may move in and out of goth as a phase, the majority of adherents stick with it into their careers, family's and later years of life.
I have written extensively about neo-tribes here.
What does it mean to be goth?
Often the response to this will be personal, varied, and include something about individualism, darkness, and that it means something different to everyone. This response however is a bit disingenuous and misguided. As a wannabe academic, I've been studying goth from a sociological perspective, through my own observational research and the academic papers and books I consume. Essentially, there are overarching boundaries which keep the subculture defined and exclusive to an extent, but are flexible enough for individuals to create personal meaning within those established boundaries. So to answer the question, to be goth is to be expressive and introspective, to hold dear a distinct genre of music and aesthetic presentation, to hold to philosophies and values that are not valued by mainstream culture, to be generally intellectual or interested in the pursuit of knowledge, it is an identity which is lived out in some manner on a daily basis, and all of this is tied together by the aesthetic of darkness and respect of death and morbidity. "romance is at the heart of being a goth and consequently tragedy is always a sigh away." It's not just about death, but a refined sensitivity to life, and an ability to appreciate the shadowy elements that much of society is busy ignoring. To be goth is to be true to yourself, both internally and externally, to recognize we are all bound for the grave, that no one deserves to be persecuted for being true to themselves, and to live everyday as you are, a goth.
What kind of music, movies, books, activities, etc are you concerned with? What kind of attitude so you embody?
I am drawn to arthouse films, horror films, documentaries, and any film with depth or a gothic aesthetic. Only Lovers Left Alive is a great example. I enjoy reading non-fiction in general, philosophy or sociology books that further my knowledge and understanding of the human condition, but also sci-fi and high fantasy. Goth activities I suppose would be family trips to the cemetery, going out to clubs/concerts, and having intellectual discussions on my podcast. However I also enjoy less cognitively intensive actives, I enjoy comics and video games and writing as well. As for attitude, I am a very amiable and passive person, I avoid conflict in general, I try to go out of my way to help and be kind to others, especially those less fortunate, and I try to be conscious of my actions, to act in accordance with my ontological vocation for humanization.
Does your work have to do with identifying as goth?
I work in I.T., before that I was a manager for a fast food restaurant. Most goths are middle class but there is a wide range of employment, from IT, to being an artist, to working at Walmart, to working in corporate positions, to working at Halloween shops. I know a couple nurses and a doctor as well. I try to find environments that value creativity and outside of the box thinking, rather than rigidity and monotonous work.
Do you have clinical depression? Have you ever self harmed?
I do not have clinical depression. In my early high school years I experimented with self harm briefly, because the metal kids at my school thought it was "cool". This had nothing to do with actual mental illness or even the metal subculture, but simply with being a dumb teenager trying to fit in and rebel without considering the meaning of my actions. It never gave me any pleasure or release, and I didn't enjoy it, so that phase didn't last very long. Once I discovered goth, I discovered they treated self harm completely differently.
In your experience, are those who identify as goth more or less likely to exhibit these traits? If they are more common among those identifying as goth, is there a support system in place? Or is the embrace of those feelings part of its appeal?
From a anecdotal perspective, I do not believe there is a higher occurrence of mental illness among goths than the mainstream. I do believe, that because of the nature of goth, adherents are able to self diagnose with a higher frequency than those in the mainstream, because the mainstream values a happy "normal" facade, even if there is festering beneath the surface. The stigma about mental illness that physical illness does not carry, is much less prevalent among goths. In fact because goths often value learning, knowledge of the human condition, and psychology and philosophy, I think there is a higher percentage of emotionally well adjusted goths than in mainstream culture.
As to proffer an explanation for the studies I've read, those who self harm (teens we are talking about here) will be more likely drawn towards alternative cultures, especially as they are emotionally immature and may misperceive an alternative culture as venerating self harm. These stereotypes about goths and depression/self harm, would seem to the outsider a valid choice of community to reinforce their actions even though they are a fallacy. The reality is quite the opposite. Goth subculture provides a space for a healthy exploration of the emotional spectrum, this includes feelings of sadness, introspection, and discontent; we view depression and self harm as they are, however, mental illnesses that are to be seriously addressed not romanticized. It's also worth noting, that goth is an aging subculture, including larger and larger numbers of those in their 30's 40's and above. Youths often experiment with identities and try on new hats, this is normal, and many of these youths who self-harm may not stay part of the goth subculture. If they do, these "baby bats" as we call them, will find a safe place for expression, however serious issues of self harm will of course be redirected towards therapists who can help them overcome and treat that issue.
I have read 2 papers on the subject of goths and self harm, there is clearly no causal link between the two, as is stated in these studies. Also most of these studies rely on survey data alone, rather than other methodological approaches, which in my opinion, means they should be taken with a large grain of salt. I think implying a correlation is dangerous as well, as it could lead to misplaced fears and superstitions about goths, when in fact these are simply troubled teens, reaching out for a space to express, find meaning, and community in a culture that sees them as broken. Again, any goth will tell you, clinical depression and self harm are serious issues that need to be worked through and treated, not celebrated.
For further discussion on mental illness, within and apart from the goth subculture, I would recommend this episode of Cemetery Confessions, in which we speak on mental illness, depression, and self harm at length.