When does self-expression mirror an inner truth? New research from Oxford University suggests goths might be at an increased risk for depression and even self-harm.

“Our study indicates that self-expression, or perhaps even more so self-identification, may be an important factor to consider when assessing vulnerability to depression and self-harm,” Dr. Lucy Bowes, a research fellow in the department of experimental psychology at University of Oxford, told Medical Daily in an email.

Even more, the authors noted, “a strong, dose-response association between identification as ‘alternative’ or ‘goth’ and self-harm has now been reported in samples from Scotland, Germany, and England… our study also identified a strong association with self-identification as a goth and adult depression.”


To define “goth,” the authors quoted the Oxford Dictionary: “a member of a subculture favoring black clothing, white and black make-up, and goth music.” Like many subcultures this one boasts diversity, the researchers noted, still members (generally speaking) share a taste for alternative clothing and music and prefer a dark, morbid mood and aesthetic. For those who do not generally conform, adoption of the goth 'identikit' may provide an important source of validation and community… a place to belong for those who don’t belong.

However, could it be true the exterior mask betrays an interior pain? Past studies have reported a strong increased risk of self-harm and attempted suicide among young goths, so Bowes and her colleagues decided to investigate.

They turned to the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a research project that first recruited pregnant women who were expecting to deliver between 1991 and 1992 in Avon, United Kingdom, and then continued to track these women and their children (who are now in their 20s). When the study had reached the 15-year mark, the researchers invited 10,962 of the ALSPAC children to visit the clinic for follow-up research. Of those invited, 5,357 teens happily attended and completed a survey where they identified their subculture. Most commonly, they chose, from a wide variety of labels, these: “sporty,” “populars,” “skaters,” “chavs,” and “goths.” At the 18 year visit, 3,694 teens returned to provide more data concerning their health and life circumstance.

Bowes and her colleagues examined the collected data. Those who self-identified as goths were more likely to be girls, to have mothers with a history of depression, to have a history of emotional issues (including depression themselves), and to have issues with their peers (such as being bullied), the team discovered.

“Although peer contagion might operate within the goth youth community, other factors such as stigma and social ostracising might represent the underlying mechanisms of increased risk," the authors noted.

“There is likely a whole set of reasons why people who self-identify with popular, 'in-groups' like 'sporty' or 'popular' may be less likely to develop depression and self-harm then individuals who self-identify with more marginalised groups that break the norms of society,” said Bowes. Going forward, she and her colleagues believe their research might help to guide the creation of better prevention strategies for teens, still in the midst of those years when rates of depression increase substantially.

Source: Bowes L, Carnegie R, Pearson R, et al. Risk of depression and self-harm in teenagers identifying with goth subculture: a longitudinal cohort study. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2015.