Teens with Alternative Self-Identity: More Likely to Self-Harm?

self-harmA recent European study found that approximately half of teens in alternative subcultures self-injure, and nearly one in five attempt suicide.[1] Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) at the University of Glasgow and from the University of Ulm in Germany designed a study to look at why these teens are more likely to self-harm and how their motivations differ from other teens.1 The main reason the teens in the study gave to explain their self-harm was to regulate their distressing emotions and to communicate this distress to friends and family.1

Researchers studied 452 German students, aged 14 to 15 years.1 The students were asked to answer questions regarding how strongly they identified with different youth cultures: Alternative (Goth, Emo, Punk), Academic (nerd), or Athletic (jock).1 The participants were also asked about risk factors that are linked to self-harm, such as demographics, social background, and victimization.1

Researchers found that teenagers with an Alternative identity were three to four times more likely to self-harm and six to seven times more likely to attempt suicide than other teenagers, even after allowing for known risk factors.1 Furthermore, identifying as an “Alternative” teenager was a stronger predictor of self-harm or suicide than being repeatedly bullied.1 Therefore, researchers investigated if adolescents from different social groups are at greater risk of self-harm.1

Athletic teens (jocks) are less likely to self-injure than others, which researcher speculate to be attributable to the effect of regular physical exercise, which has been shown to improve mood and combat depression.1 Also, the findings indicated that academic teens (nerds) did not experience the peer exclusion and victimization that is typically associated with such students.1 They seemed no more likely to self-injure or be suicidal than other teens.1

Robert Young, senior investigative scientist at the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit and lead author of the study said, “Our work highlights just how strongly adolescents’ social identity is linked with their self-harming behaviors. We hope the findings can be used to both identify young people at risk and help them manage their emotions in less destructive ways that are tailored to their natures.”1

For isolated teenagers who struggle with emotional difficulties, it is likely that they are naturally drawn to a musical subculture that expresses these feelings.1 Therefore, the next step is to determine if this phenomenon is exclusive to western society or if alternative youth around the world experience this same effect.1

Co-author Paul Plener, MD, an Ulm University child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in music therapy for self-harming adolescents, said, “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.”1

In fact, Plener believes in therapeutic approaches that can build upon the strong identification with a certain kind of music or youth group; therefore, music therapy in combination with strategies to decrease distress are a viable option for treating self-harm.1

[1] Nauert, R. (2014). Teens with Alternative Self-Identity More Likely to Self-Harm. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/05/27/teens-with-alternative-self-identity-more-likely-to-self-harm/70428.html

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