Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Suicidality: An Empirical Investigation
Scheel, Karen R., S, Westefeld John, Adolescence
A threefold increase in adolescent suicide over the past few decades and high rates of suicidal ideation and attempts (Garland & Zigler, 1993) have generated widespread concern. The music preferences of adolescents have come under scrutiny in this regard. The Parent-Teacher Association has taken the position that there are connections between certain types of rock music and adolescent suicidality, and Tipper Gore (the wife of Vice President Albert Gore) has spearheaded efforts to require music companies to include parental warning labels, with the issue debated in the U.S. Congress (Martin & Segrave, 1988; Stack, Gundlach, & Reeves, 1994). Heavy metal music, in particular, has been targeted. Performed by bands with such names as Megadeth, Slayer, Black Sabbath, and Suicidal Tendencies, this music is typified by themes of societal and mental chaos (Weinstein, 1991) and references to homicide, suicide, and satanic practices (Wass et al., 1988-89). Suicide pacts among teenage heavy metal fans (Gaines, 1991; Lester, 1987) have contributed to public criticism. Further, several lawsuits have been initiated against heavy metal artists and their recording companies as a result of teen suicides (Stack et al., 1994).
The American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed concern about rock music's effects on young people, and has called for greater research in this area (Committee on Communications, 1989). Brown and Hendee (1989) have indicated that physicians should use music preference, particularly heavy metal, as a clue to possible psychosocial problems in adolescent patients. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends psychiatric evaluations for troubled teenagers who show, among other things, a preoccupation with music involving destructive themes, such as suicide (Alessi, Huang,
James, Ying, & Chowhan, 1992). Adolescents' preference for heavy metal music, apart from other factors, has been found to heavily influence decisions regarding psychiatric hospitalization (Rosenbaum & Prinsky, 1991).
Although the perception of connection between preference for heavy metal music and adolescent suicidality appears widespread, establishing a causal link is extremely difficult. However, exploring heavy metal preference primarily as a reflection of at-risk status is both feasible and relevant to the needs of those who work with adolescents. In part because suicidal adolescents are unlikely to seek out assistance (Aaronson, Underwood, Gaffney, & Rotheram-Borus, 1989; Kalafat & Elias, 1992; Shaffer et al., 1990), professionals need to be able to identify at-risk individuals or groups before intervention and prevention strategies can be most effectively implemented (Berman & Jobes, 1991; Butler, Novy, Kagan, & Gates, 1994; Davis & Sandoval, 1991; Poland, 1989). Adolescent heavy metal fans have been found to be particularly ardent (Arnett, 1991a) and to constitute a readily identifiable subculture (Gaines, 1991; Gross, 1990; Weinstein, 1991). While suicide intervention/prevention efforts directed toward this group might be valuable, such efforts clearly should have an empirical basis.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
A comprehensive review of the literature (Scheel, 1995) concluded that, as a group, adolescent heavy metal fans, the great majority of whom are white males, appear to vary (in a uniformly negative direction) from the general adolescent population on a wide range of characteristics and behaviors. They may have higher than average rates of substance use (including alcohol), delinquency, recklessness, and depression, lower self-esteem, more strained family relationships, greater school-related problems, and lower socioeconomic status. To a considerable degree, these attributes overlap established risk factors for adolescent suicide; however, they are overly distal risk indicators given the relatively lower rate of adolescent suicidal behavior (Scheel, 1995). Further, Took and Weiss (1994) have noted that some findings regarding characteristics associated with preference for heavy metal music may be artifactual to the greater frequency of problematic behaviors among adolescent males in general.
Stack and colleagues (1994) have argued that heavy metal music reflects and possibly nurtures suicidogenic alienation, despair, and hopelessness among members of the heavy metal subculture. These researchers found that heavy metal magazine subscription rates, as a measure of the strength of the heavy metal youth subculture, correlated significantly with rates of youth, but not adult, suicide. This finding remained even after variables linked to suicide (e.g., divorce rate, poverty statistics, race, and religion) were controlled. While this sociological approach is intriguing, it is conceivable that unexamined factors independently influenced both the heavy metal magazine subscription rate and the youth suicide rate, with there being no meaningful connection between the two.
Martin, Clarke, and Pearce (1993) investigated correlates of music preference in a sample of Australian high school students. They found that significantly more females in the combined "rock/metal" group, as compared with those in the "pop" group, reported having thought about killing themselves (66% vs. 35%) and having engaged in acts of deliberate self-harm (62% vs. 14%). No significant differences were found for males, although results were in the same direction. Martin et al. argued that adolescents with preexisting problems (in this case, personal and family psychopathology) may seek out rock/heavy metal music because the negative themes reflect their own feelings. They concluded that the findings provide preliminary support for the hypothesis that preference for this kind of music is an indicator of vulnerability to suicidal thoughts and behaviors, especially among females. However, grouping rock and heavy metal fans together does not appear to be appropriate for American teenagers. Research has indicated that, in the U.S., adolescent heavy metal fans are a more extreme group, with more pronounced negative characteristics, compared with both mainstream rock and hard rock fans (Arnett, 1992).
Although it has been conjectured that the bleak worldview presented in heavy metal music mirrors the outlook of adolescent fans, this was not directly assessed in the aforementioned studies despite the existence of a relevant measure - the Reasons for Living Inventory (Lineham, Goodstein, Nielsen, & Chiles, 1983). This instrument can be used to determine suicidal risk through an assessment of adaptive beliefs, such as optimism about the future, confidence in ability to cope, commitment to family, and belief that suicide is wrong.
If preference for heavy metal music indeed reflects preexisting maladaptive beliefs or characteristics, the question can be raised as to whether listening to this music "helps" or "hurts," particularly since adolescents often turn to music in times of stress (e.g., Kurdek, 1987). A number of models have been suggested which seek to explain the influence of music on negative behaviors (Hansen & Hansen, 1991; King, 1988; Lester, 1987; Wass, Miller, & Stevenson, 1989). More limited arguments relevant to suicidal vulnerability have also been put forth regarding the effects of listening to heavy metal music on mood. Arnett (1991a) has argued that it may serve a positive, cathartic function. There is mixed evidence that heavy metal fans typically are in a negative, especially angry, mood before …
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Publication information: Article title: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Suicidality: An Empirical Investigation. Contributors: Scheel, Karen R. - Author, S, Westefeld John - Author. Journal title: Adolescence. Volume: 34. Issue: 134 Publication date: Summer 1999. Page number: 253. © 1999 Libra Publishers, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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