Teenage victims of the heavy stuff

11th June 2004 at 01:00
The type of music we listen to helps us form judgments about who we want to mix with. That it might determine who we are attracted to comes as no surprise to evolutionary psychologists, who argue that the reason we play music in the first place is to attract the opposite sex. It is no accident, they argue, that rock stars have such a reputation for promiscuity.

But while music plays a powerful role in bringing people together, it can also destabilise them emotionally. Startling research conducted on young people in the United States, and just published in the ominously named academic journal, Death Studies, has found that musical preferences can indicate whether you will become suicidal. A preference for heavy metal seems to be strongly associated with depression, drug-taking, alienation from authority, and even family dysfunction.

There is a widespread perception among the older generation that heavy metal music is "unhealthy"; rockers Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest have both been unsuccessfully sued by distressed parents who allege their teenagers committed suicide while listening to their music. And in 1996, the American Academy of Paediatrics issued a statement reflecting its concern over the effects of lyrics and music videos on the young. Even the fans of heavy metal admit that, compared to other pop music, it contains more negative messages about drugs, violence, suicide, death, war and the devil, and fewer about love, happiness and the environment.

Further confirmation that what you listen to could kill you comes from an American study, conducted in the 1990s, into the music subcultures of each state. Using measures such as the number of subscriptions to heavy metal magazines, it found that the more influential the subculture in a region, the higher the youth suicide rate.

Several psychological theories try to explain the link between heavy metal and emotional dysfunction. Perhaps the least plausible is that because it's often a minority taste, and meant to be played loudly, it leads to isolation as family and friends get out of the house to avoid aural discomfort. Perhaps the association with family dysfunction is because such music leads to parental discord and possibly even separation.

The most credible theory is that a group of young people with pre-existing personal psychological pathology seek out heavy metal because its style, themes and lyrics resonate with their own frustration, rage and despair.

The music then makes them worse. The evidence for this comes from research which found that while about two-thirds of those who listen to heavy metal say they feel happier afterwards, a significant 11 per cent say they feel sadder. It is probably these people, psychologists argue, who are most vulnerable to acting out the lyrics or themes from the music.

It is also notable that many rock musicians - such as Kurt Cobain (pictured), lead singer of the grunge band Nirvana, who committed suicide in 1994 - are vulnerable to psychological dysfunction. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine four months before his death, Cobain discussed his suicidal preoccupations and his fascination with guns. (The song "I hate myself and want to die" was cut from his final album before its release.) Experts feared Cobain's death would spark copycat suicides. But the suicide rate among 15 to 24-year-olds fell dramatically in the month after his death, compared to the corresponding month over the previous five years.

Perhaps the antidote is for parents, authorities, youth media and organisations to tackle the taboo over suicide head on, so encouraging a more open discussion of this common adolescent preoccupation.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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