My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

The Gothic subculture is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, and looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Tim Burton, Siouxsie Sioux and Anne Rice et al.) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. Goth should not be limited by what is considered "goth", inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Saturday, 29 August 2015

My Reflection On The Oxford University Study Into Depression and Goth

A lot of newspapers yesterday were publishing articles based on ::this:: recent study in the Lancet by Dr Lucy Bowes at the Department of Experimental Psychology of the Oxford University, and her team, that saw correlation between teen depression, self-harm and Goth. The study was statistically modified to account for other upbringing/personal background data on the participants that may contribute to an increased risk of depression. 

First of all, I have a two things that, as a member of the subculture at the time these inquiries were made (and in Bristol in 2005 and 2006) and only a few years older than those being asked (so still a teen at that point, and interacting with other subcultural teens, possibly including a few of the cohort asked, with which I wish to mention about this study itself. Psychology and anthropology are not my areas of expertise, but I feel that I have well over a decade of experience of the Goth subculture and have tried my best to fully educate myself on the subculture I belong to (it is part of my obsessive tendencies to thoroughly read anything I can on whatever subject I fall in love with, whether it is cathedral architecture or the Gothic subculture). 

The big thing I was surprised at was that "Emo" and "Metal" never came up as identity categories/subcultures. Emo was much more of a big thing than it is now; it's a subculture that seems on the wane these days, but it was certainly very popular in the mid-to-late '00s, and there is also no category for "Mosher" or "Metalhead", which means that anyone identifying as those things would probably have chosen the closest category, "Goth", especially for young Emos, as there has often been confusion amongst babybats as to what is Goth, what is Emo, and to a lesser degree in terms of broader subculture, but greater degree in terms of music, what is Metalhead, because those three subcultures have a lot of overlapping features, and figuring out which subculture you identify with the most, or which combination, can be a bit complicated to begin with. Heck, when I was a babybat, I was probably closer to a metalhead/scene-kid, but mostly because I didn't really understand what Goth was, and was ignorant to its subcultural history and the broader range of things it encompasses. The age group - teens - also means that this confusion is far more likely to arise than if they asked adults (who also can be Goth, but that is another paragraph) and as such it is likely that this should be "young members of darker alternative subcultures" because I would imagine there are a quite a few in that group who might have been identifying as Goths for the purpose of the survey because they could not identify as Emo or Metal, in order to express subculture despite not having the correct named subculture. The way that the survey was conducted, in terms of being able to identify from 'strongly identify' to 'not at all' would counter that to some degree, but I do think that it would have been clearer to have these separate categories. As categories were not exclusive, those who felt they were part of more than one subculture could have identified as Goth as well as Emo, for example, so it would not have forced those who are still exploring their identity to chose. 

I have also noted a distinct difference in attitude towards negative emotions between Goth and Emo subcultures. I am no expert on Emo, nor one myself, and do not wish to tarnish them by misinterpreting what I have experienced, but what I personally have seen amongst the Emo/Scene people I have interacted with is that there seemed to be a greater tendency to glorify depression and mental ill-health, including self-harm, and a linked tendency to overly identify with the idea that a troubled soul a poet (or other creative type; I'm not being literal) makes. It is not that personal troubles do not make good fuel for the creative forge sometimes, but that I noticed this taken to extremes within Emo sometimes. Emo, by its definition, focuses on music that is Emotional Hardcore (derivative of Metal and hardcore Punk) and one that focuses on one's personal emotional turbulences, from depression and anorexia and other mental illness at one end, to the turbulences of life such as isolation from ones peers and heartbreak, and Goth is a much broader subculture, and while it does embrace the darkness in these manifestations, it also embraces the darkness in a lot of other manifestations. Emo seems to be more about a creative release for one's personal troubles, and Goth seems to be more about appreciating the darkness in the world around you. As such, the effect that joining the two different subcultures, or a combination of them, may have, when it comes to depression, may well be quite different. 

The second thing that I am surprised at is that they chose to look at specifically teens, and seem to be writing as if Goth is a youth subculture, something only partaken of as a teen and young person. Goth may be a phase for some, but it is a lifelong commitment to a beautiful artistic world of dark beauty for some of us. One thing I would be intrigued to know is the breakdown of how many of those that identified as Goths as teens would do so now, and how many of those who didn't might do now. Perhaps it would be interesting to see if there is any relation to those for whom Goth was a phase and higher or lower rates of depression; Goth and other dark subcultures can seem like a place of asylum in the original sense of the word - a haven - somewhere where they can safely express themselves with less judgement than from their conventional peers, and where the content of the culture can be cathartic, or a means to express painful emotions, and maybe if the connection is based more on having a safe group within which to express and be open about troubling emotions, as they fluctuate, or as other coping mechanisms and support networks form, and as adults can be less openly judgemental than teens and more mature in their understanding of mental health, some of those teens may have moved away from Goth. Some of them, like me, may have fallen in love with dark side, and stayed for good! Anyway, to better understand the relation of Goth and depression, it would probably be interesting to see whether those who identified as Goth as teens still did as adults, and how rates of depression continued, including in relation to whether or not they later left the subculture. 

The third thing is that more detailed inquiry into the personal relationship for those who identified as Goth and were showing high indications of depression, was not further explored. I think this was a large enough statistical study as it was, and it would have been hard to transfer personal experience into statistical data when a lot of those relationships are probably not easily quantifiable. Personal testimony and explanation would need to be examined, and that is not a research task I'd have any clue as a person outside of the field, on how to conduct, but I imagine those who are researchers in psychology and anthropology would probably have suggestions (and I image that there are probably a few amongst my readers). One thing postulated at the end of the article in the lancet was whether Goth music would aggravate depression in Goths, but personally, I don't think that "Listening to repeated music from the goth genre might lower mood and exacerbate symptoms of depression" as the paper suggest rings true for Goths; it might work if that music is played to people who don't have a predisposition to liking it, but for most Goths I have met, listening to our music makes us happy; that's why we listen to it! Some find it a release, some find it a comfort in knowing they are not alone, some find it cathartic, but I have never come across a Goth who finds that it makes them feel worse.

I think it is an interesting study to have been done, and I am very happy with the fact that the researchers were clear to state that CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUATE TO CAUSATION. Sadly, some of the newspapers and other media have ignored this fundamental point of logic, and some articles have been less than favourable. I am not going to link to those articles, because every page view is revenue for them. I will, however, link to this ::article:: in the Guardian written by Simon Price, who was Goth back in the '80s in London, and I think has had subcultural leanings ever since by what he said in the article. I would also like to commend the BBC on their coverage. They even interviewed one of my friends - Holly Weeping Willow; a Gothic model and someone who is professionally a Goth in other ways - for the radio, although I haven't got a link to that audio yet. Their articles on the subject have been more balanced and the main one can be read ::here::, with a more detailed personal account ::here::. While personal anecdotes can be the "enemy of good science" as Simon Price said in his article, I think it needs to be noticed that similar themes come up in nearly all of them, including my own, and it would indicate to me that perhaps "good science" ought to come in and explore those connections better with proper research. The Independent seems to have a reasonable and balanced article, but with a clickbait headline and that is ::here::.

My main concern is that people will use these findings to target Goths as potentially mentally ill, that it will fuel stigmas that we are all 'crazy' or depressed. That is not the fault of the researchers, who seem keen to avoid this, but of the way some people will use this data for their own agenda. I can't say that I don't have my own protective bias towards the Goth community, because I certainly do (the community has protected me, and I feel duty bound to reciprocate), but I am at least aware of that, and open about it, which is more than I can say for those with a bias against Goth who report in a sensationalist manner about it. 

12 comments:

  1. I could not agree more! I believe that the teenage years of a person are either way confusing and tend to get depressive that has nothing to do with the subculture they belong to.

    unknownprettylies.blogspot.com

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    1. I agree that teenagers do definitely have a lot of life changes and changes in hormones and neurodevelopment that can lead to a lot of difficult times, but I also think that there are teenagers who are also suffering from mental illnesses such as depression , with a broader range of causes and aggravating factors; personal circumstance and bullying being two frequent ones, as well as those who have the misfortune to have a neurochemical, autogenic sort of depression. I don't think that Goth CAUSES depression, but I do think that it can provide a less judgemental, emotionally open community that is not afraid to face darker issues and discuss them, and that this could be quite welcoming and helpful for depressed teens, especially those who feel like they are outsiders, and who find the darker content of Goth cathartic, sympathetic, or just simply have those sorts of tastes. As such, I think it is not that Goth teens risk depression, but that depressed teens may be attracted to Goth.

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  2. I think your concerns are well founded, HouseCat. Even if the study was done honestly, there are those who will use it to denigrate our existence and subculture. That said, I don't think that those not involved in the subculture can ever fully understand what motivates us. We are simply wired differently.

    I have long believed that science tends to break things down to their smallest components. That's not necessarily the way to look at things in every situation. Sometimes a more all-encompassing, holistic approach is needed or at least, a balance between the two. That's what I think the above-mentioned study lacks.

    It was good to see you back here.

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    1. It lacks the context to explain the correlation, but I don't think it is wrong in picking up on the correlation; the problem will be those who use that correlation to perpetuate the stereotypes. We are not all depressed. I actually wrote a detailed article on that a while back, and so I won't repeat myself here. Goth is not a symptom of depression, even if it can be welcoming for those suffering from depression and other troubles. We're Goth because we find the beauty in the darkness, we have a shared aesthetic, a morbid curiosity, and various outlooks on life that have those threads that connect us to this artistic movement and subculture that is Goth.

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  3. I am thrilled that you addressed this because I, too, found the study to be limited in scope and biased. As a Goth who is 43 and who has been in the punk rock/goth/alternative subculture since I was 13, I can say that Goths are no more depressed than regular people. The last 30 years of my life in the subculture has taught me that: some people are depressed, some aren't. Some people are introverted, some are extroverted. Some are reserved, some are perky ... etc. etc. The one thing that Goths are (over other people) is fiercely independent, free thinkers and problem solvers. We're different. We know it. We choose to be this way and therefore, we had to grow a really thick skin ... and we like it that way. We are also find humor in things that other people find taboo. For example, just this morning over breakfast Ed and I seriously discussed what we want to do with our bodies when we die. Seriously. It wasn't emotional. It wasn't creepy. It was matter-of-fact -- we are both eco-conscious and support eco-friendly burial practices. The person sitting next to us in the diner was HORRIFIED and she said so. Our answer: we're all going to die. Might as well make your plans now so that you get what you want. She was not happy.

    Anyway, the "scientists" wanted to find Goths as depressed creatures and they did. Most kids I know are going through so many hormonal changes, of course they're going to be depressed and funky!

    Again, thanks for addressing this.

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    1. Mind the typos. I really should proofread my comments! Sheeze.

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    2. The researchers themselves seemed to want to see if there was a correlation or not, but not necessarily because they were looking to prove Goths are all depressed. It didn't seem that they personally drew those conclusions, just that from the small number of Goths asked, a higher than average percentage of Goths were showing signs of depression. They actually made pains to say that correlation did not equate to causation in this, but I don't think they really understood what causes this correlation, nor tried to study it. I have met a higher than average number of Goths with depression, but I've only been a Goth half as long as you have (approximately) and may have been exposed to both a younger demographic, and one that is primarily UK based. I would certainly be quick to say that Goths are a very varied bunch and we are certainly not ALL depressed, or all mentally ill - but I do think that the more emotionally open and less judgemental (in that respect) aspects of the Goth culture, plus the cathartic and positive effects the subculture and its content can have (finding solace in realising your experience are not utterly unique, breaking down social isolation, finding catharsis is some of the darker content, etc.) means that it can be attractive to people who are experiencing those kinds of problems. I agree that we are different and we know it, and one conclusion I have seen that may actually reflect reality a bit more is that is that sense of outsider status and isolation that both aggravates a propensity for depression and inclines one to be Goth, especially if the reasons for that outsider status is a having a more unusual way of looking at the world that is tinged with morbid curiosity, an appreciation for darker things, etc. This was actually discussed by the researchers, and it was mentioned (I think in the accompanying audio interview with Dr. Bowes) that those who became Goth had a begun to be outsiders since at least 8, and had higher-than-average rates of bullying long before they were Goth.

      I have had plenty of conversations on public transport that have weirded out people with me, because I sometimes forget that what is ordinary conversation amongst my circle of friends is a bit dark by more mundane standards! Alas that some people listen and are rude about it :(

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    3. Also, your comment was readable and coherent, and the typos were only noticed after you'd pointed them out to me! Don't worry :)

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  4. I've always found that empathy is a very strong trait among the goths I've known; not that I've known many. Perhaps it's not a strong enough correlation...

    It would be fascinating to see a study done on goths who have been at it a long time. I wonder how much of that data will change.

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    1. I certainly think a study on long-term Goths, and on short-term Goths (the ones for whom it actually a phase) and how things pan out for them would be really interesting.

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  5. I saw a post about this on my facebook a few days ago (I didn't read the article because I knew it would only make me angry)...

    But I stand by the comment I made there: I think that it's not that goth kids are more likely to be depressed, but that it's more likely for depressed kids to be goth (or to belong to another alternative subculture).

    I blame this on the fact that mainstream culture has such a focus on being upbeat and happy all the time -- negative emotions, sadness and anger really aren't really as accepted... Whereas there's far less of a focus on that in alternative subcultures.

    While I can definitely vouch for a glorification of DEPRESSION in the emo community (I was really into the emo community as a teen) -- there's a tendency to glorify mental illness in the goth community as well (this might be more of a tumblrgoth thing but...) I see a lot of "I'M NOT SANE!" "i'M A PSYCHOPATH!" sort of things -- and the romanticization of insane asylums, straight-jackets and the like is also present...

    I don't think either subculture glorifies self-harm the way a lot of people outside of them seem to believe (I never felt particularly encouraged to self-harm when I was into emo and the friends I made back then were actually some of the happiest/upbeat people I've ever known, lol.)

    Still, I kind of dislike these kinds of studies -- or at least the way that articles seem to talk about them because it kind of paints the image that there are easily noticed signs of depression... As if a parent can just go "OH MY CHILD IS INTERESTED IN GOTH THEY MUST BE DEPRESSED!" which not only does harm to goths, but does harm to mainstream kids/kids who aren't interested in goth in that their parents are more likely to think they're a-okay...

    *shrug* IDK,that's kind of just my opinion as someone w/depression and as someone who's been goth and emo in their lifetime.

    (for what it's worth, my interest in goth definitely went up when my depression started to decrease and I had the confidence to do/dress what/how I want.)

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    1. The Emos I knew personally did seem to glorify self-harm, as if it was a badge of honour for 'true suffering' but that may just have been those I interacted with; as I said, I'm no expert on Emos, that is just what my experience of those I knew was. By the sounds of things, those you knew/know have a much more healthy attitude, and if that's representative of Emos as whole, then that's certainly a good thing :) Your experience of Emo is probably much greater than mine if you are a participating member of that subculture rather than a periphery "hanger-on" as I was. We were all alternative, and there wasn't the numbers for individual subcultures to for their own cliques. As I said in my article, I didn't want to make generalisations, this was just what I had observed. I'm not part of their subculture, and I would also imagine that as with many teen groups, the character of localised groups will be quite different between places.

      In my experience of Goth, I think some elements, like what Emily Autumn does, is a glorification (I used to be a fan, but no longer), but for the most part what I've seen is more a morbid fascination, especially with the sheer horror of how old 19thC and early 20thC institutions were run.

      I'm not active on Tumblr; I find it has too much drama, and the demographic is mostly teenagers and people in their younger twenties; not really my age-group. I can't really say I've thus encountered anyone like that. Claiming to be a psychopath in that sort of way seems to be sheer shock-value attention seeking, and obnoxiously pretentious. I have met a only one younger Goth who makes some fairly outlandish claims that seem to be aimed at appearing shocking, centred around Nazis, though, rather than psychopathy. I would imagine that there are other younger and also possibly older people who are less mature, who might make these sort of claims for shock value, or to seem edgy or interesting. I wouldn't say it is typical of Goth itself, though, at least not adult Goths. From what I did experience of Tumblr, there were a lot of people there who made up quite outlandishly "special" identities, and this might be part of that broader trend on Tumblr. Shock value seems to be something younger, inexperienced people seeking to be rebellious are drawn to, and as part of identity-forming and development and the turbulence of adolescence, it is understandable (heck, part of why I became a Goth was to shock the conservative establishments around me, but that's not why I stayed), but I think most people mature out of that, and find less oppositional, less provocative ways to project their identity once they feel more secure in themselves and established as a person.

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