K.R. Scheel and J.S. Westefeld. (Summer, 1999). “Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Suicidality: An Empirical Investigation.” Adolescence, 34 (134), 253-273.
The increase in the rate of adolescent suicide, suicide ideation (contemplation of suicide), and suicide attempts has led to widespread concern. Themes of societal and mental chaos and references to homicide, suicide, and satanic practices have led critics to scrutinize heavy metal music. Several highly publicized suicide pacts among adolescent heavy metal fans have contributed to the concern over the connection between heavy metal music and suicide.
The perception of a connection between heavy metal music and suicide is widespread, but establishing a causal link is difficult. However, exploring heavy metal preference as a reflection of at-risk status is feasible and relevant. Because adolescents rarely seek help, professionals need to be able to identify at-risk individuals and groups at an early stage when intervention and prevention strategies are most effective.
The literature concludes that adolescent heavy metal fans, the great majority of whom are white males, appear to vary from the general adolescent population on a wide range of characteristics and behaviors. They may have higher than average rates of drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency, recklessness, depression, and low self esteem, as well as more strained family relationships, more problems in school, and lower socioeconomic status. These characteristics overlap established risk factors for adolescent suicide.
It has been supposed that the bleak world view presented in heavy metal music mirrors the outlook of its adolescent listeners, but this has not been directly assessed in any study. This study was designed then to assess the suicidal risk of adolescent heavy metal fans. A second purpose was to explore the relationships between music listening, negative effect, and suicidal risk.
Participants were 121 tenth through twelvth grade students in psychology classes at a single public high school in a middle class community of 20,000 in the Midwest. Over 90% were caucasian. Because more girls take psychology, there were 77 females and 44 males. Students took three instruments: Reason for Living Inventory (RFL), a music survey, and the Suicidal Risk Questionnaire (SRQ). The RFL has six subclasses: Survival and Coping Beliefs, Responsibility to Family, Child-Related Concerns (this was omitted), Fear of Suicide, Fear of Social Disapproval, and Moral Objection (to suicide). The music survey identified the favorite types of music of the students, how much they listened to each type, and mood before and after listening. The SRQ has respondents rate their current suicidal risk.
- 40% Of students liked or strongly liked heavy metal music (64% of males and 27% of females).
- 6% (All male) listed heavy metal as their favorite type in a free response item.
- Significant positive correlations were found between liking country music, pop/mainstream rock, and rap music and various RFL scores. Alternative music seemed to have a negligible relationship with RFL scores.
- Only heavy metal had a significant negative correlation. Heavy metal fans showed significantly lower survival and coping beliefs and responsibility to family. Additionally, male fans showed significantly lower moral objections to suicide.
- Music listening appeared to be associated with a positive mood. There was not significant evidence that music listening had a negative effect on mood, but of eleven students who reported to feeling angrier after listening to music, seven were heavy metal fans.
The hypothesis that adolescent fans of heavy metal music are more vulnerable to suicide as represented by less adaptive cognitive patterns was supported. Heavy metal fans were found to have significantly lower RFL scores. Their lower scores on Responsibility to Family, Survival and Coping Beliefs, and, for males, Moral Objections is important because these three subclasses are consistently associated with higher suicidal risk among teens. Additional support came from the finding that a significantly greater percentage of heavy metal fans thought occasionaly or often about killing themselves than non fans.
The data does not reveal individual variability within the group, and it is therefore likely that many heavy metal fans are not especially at-risk. Probably only a small portion of the 40% who liked heavy metal are at risk for suicide. The results do not indicate that heavy metal listeners are in imminent danger of suicide: “A better conceptualization…is that their relatively weaker belief systems in terms of optimism about the future, confidence in ability to cope, commitment to family, and belief that suicide is wrong may not carry them through crises as surely as would be hoped, rendering them somewhat more vulnerable to suicide.”
Patterns in the findings suggest that heavy metal primarily attracts troubled teens rather than produces them. If pro-suicide messages in the music were influencing teens, it would be expected that heavy metal listeners would have shown lower scores than others on the Fear of Social Disapproval, Fear of Suicide, and Moral Objection scales. Only males on the Moral Objection scale scored lower than other listeners.
Being able to identify vulnerable adolescents who are not in imminent danger is important for early intervention. If the study can be replicated, targeting heavy metal subcultures may be a strategy of identifying higher risk teens. Care is required though to avoid stigmatizing an individual or group. Screening on suicidality alone is not recommended.
The sampling of students was relatively small, especially of males who are by far the largest proportion of heavy metal listeners. The study also included very few hard core or exclusively heavy metal listeners. Controlling for other risk factors is also necessary for better determining the role of music in adolescent risk of suicide.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What was your favorite type of music or musical group in high school? How did listening to it make you feel?
- What is your favorite type of music or musical group now? What do you think it says about you?
- How often do you take time to find out and listen to the music that is popular with adolescents?
- Do you think we can tell something about a teen based on the music they listen to?
- What are some ways we can use music to open up discussion and communication with teens?
- Heavy metal music listening may be an indicator for adolescents who are at risk of suicide or other risky behavior due to low optimism about the future, confidence in ability to cope, and commitment to family. The music is most likely a symptom, not the problem.
- We need to be careful about making judgments about adolescents and their music because it is such a strong part of their identity, especially those who are deeply into a particular musical subculture. Yet, these may be the ones who are most at risk. We need to think about constructive ways to approach the issue.
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