02:26am Sunday 22 September 2019

Why 'Alternative' teenagers self harm: exploring the link between non-suicidal self injury, attempted suicide and adolescent identity

This is the first research to look at why teenagers in certain subcultures are more likely to self-harm and how their motivations differ from other teenagers. Overwhelmingly, the reasons teenagers in this study gave to explain why they self-injure was to regulate distressing emotions and communicate this distress to friends and family. Earlier research finds that the majority of adolescents who self-injure have friends who also self-injure and suggests self-injury might be socially contagious. However in this study, only a few teenagers were found to self-injure because they wanted to ‘feel more part of a group’.

The study, published in BMC Psychiatry, was conducted in Germany using 452 school pupils, aged 14-15 years. Pupils were asked to answer questions on how strongly they identified with different youth cultures, such as Alternative (Goth, Emo, Punk), Nerd (academic) or Jock (athletic)**. They were also asked about risk factors strongly linked to self-injury including, demographic (gender, immigration), social background (parent’s social and economic status) and victimisation (physical bullying and verbal harassment).

Researchers found teenagers with an Alternative identity were 3-4 times more likely to self-injure and 6-7 times more likely to attempt suicide than other teenagers, even after allowing for known risk factors. Identifying as an ‘Alternative teenager’ was a stronger predictor of self-injury or a suicide attempt than being repeatedly bullied.

The scientists investigated if adolescents from different social groups are at greater risk of self-injury. Athletic teens (Jocks) are less likely to self-injure than others. The authors speculate this may be attributable to the effect of regular physical exercise which has been shown to improve mood and combat depression in adults.

Interestingly, the findings indicate that academic (Nerd) teens do not experience the peer exclusion and victimisation stereotypically associated with such pupils. Modern ‘Nerds’ seemed no more likely to self-injure or be suicidal than the other teenagers.

The authors recognise the study has several limitations. For example, information was self-reported and only a minority (7.4%, n=33) of pupils identified as Alternative youth. The scientists were clear the research does not ‘prove’ that identifying with alternative culture ‘causes’ teens to self-harm. Rather it is equally likely that isolated teenagers struggling with emotional difficulties are naturally drawn to a musical (sub)culture that expresses these feelings and membership may even have positive social or cathartic effects.

In previous research, Robert Young, Senior Investigative Scientist at the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit and lead author of this study, found a strong association between self-injury and the Goth youth culture among Glasgow teenagers [5]. Over half (53.5%) of Glaswegian Goth teens reported they had engaged in non-suicidal self-injury and 47% claimed to have attempted suicide. The complimentary German study suggests the “Alternative identity effect” has not diminished and is found among the current generation of teenagers.

Robert Young, Senior Investigative Scientist at the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit said: “Our work highlights just how strongly adolescents’ social identity is linked with their self-harming behaviours. We hope the findings can be used to both identify young people at risk and help them to manage their emotions in less destructive ways that are tailored to their natures. Future research should explore whether this phenomenon is exclusive to western society or if ‘alternative’ youth around the world experience the same effect.”

Co-author Paul Plener, an Ulm University, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist who specialises in music therapy for self-harming adolescence, comments: “Our research supports the notion that social mechanisms influence self-harm. This is a crucial finding when thinking of ways to address and prevent self-harm in adolescence. It may well be that building on the strong identification with a certain kind of music or youth group, therapeutic approaches such as music therapy in combination with strategies to decrease distress are a feasible option for addressing self-harm. ”

Professor David Lomas, Chair of the MRC Population and Systems Medicine Board, said: “Global estimates suggest 30% of all teenagers have suicidal thoughts, 18% have self-injured and 4% actually attempt suicide and the overall rates in this study were typical for this age group (26%, 21% and 4% respectively). Understanding the reason why different groups of teenagers self-injure will hopefully lead to early detection and help develop effective interventions for those at risk from self-injury or suicide.”

Find out more

Robert Young

Institute of Health and Wellbeing

College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences

Medical Research Council

 


 

Notes to Editors:

 

* The researchers define ‘Alternative’ teenagers as Goths, Emos or Punks, based the definition used by the Greater Manchester Police (GMP). GMP consulted academic experts in both youth subculture (Paul Hodkinson) and Hate crime (Jon Garland) when deriving the definition.
** Adolescents were asked about their identification with 18 different youth cultures. A statistical technique called factor analysis identified which youth cultures are were strongly linked with each other. For example, Alternative youths were highly likely to identify as Goth, Emo, Punk and to a lesser degree (Death) Metal or (Hard) Rock, while Nerds and Jocks were distinct subcultures.

 

  • To interview any of the authors, please contact Claire Hastings at the MRC press office on press.office@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk or +44(0)20 7395 2345
    Research article – Why alternative teenagers self-harm: exploring the link between non-suicidal self-injury, attempted suicide and adolescent identity Robert Young, Nina Sproeber, Rebecca C Groschwitz, Marthe Preiss and Paul L Plener BMC Psychiatry 2014, 14:137

 

About the Medical Research Council

 

The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. www.mrc.ac.uk

 

About BioMed Central and BMC Psychiatry

 

BioMed Central (BMC) is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector. http://www.biomedcentral.com/

 

BMC Psychiatry is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on all aspects of the prevention, diagnosis and management of psychiatric disorders, as well as related molecular genetics, pathophysiology, and epidemiology. Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central’s open access policy.

 

World Goth Day

 

The 22nd of May (date of publication) is World Goth Day. For more information, here’s a link to the ‘official’ website www.worldgothday.com


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