Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Suicidality: An Empirical Investigation

By Scheel, Karen R.; S, Westefeld John | Adolescence, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

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). …

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