Goths, Depression and How the Media Gets It Wrong

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The negativity of Goth culture has worried parents, teachers and adults for ages, but media reports about it causing depression in kids is way off mark.
The negativity of Goth culture has worried parents, teachers and adults for ages, but media reports about it causing depression in kids is way off mark.

One of the fun things about living in the U.K. in the early 1980s and not being an old bastard was the youth subcultures. Punks, mods, rude boys, rastas, skinheads, Teddy boys, New Romantics — it was all just a bit of fun, dressing up and listening to the amazing music that was coming out. Since no one in the U.K. at the time had a job (Mrs. Thatcher did to British industry what Hermann Goering and the Luftwaffe could not), it wasn’t like there was any reason to be normal.

At about the same time I got there, the post-punk era ushered in the Goths. Lifting their look from David Vanian of the Damned and Siouxsie Sioux of the Banshees, they dressed in black (down to the nail polish), and their bands were The Cure (magic), Sisters of Mercy (vastly wonderful) and Bauhaus (close to perfection with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”). I never fell for the whole gloom and doom thing that they embraced, mostly because I prefer angry action to moping. Make kaput what makes you kaput is my motto. But my roommates Neil and Mark were onboard all the way.

That was more than 30 years ago, and the last I heard, Neil was an insurance broker in the U.S., and Mark was living in suburban London as a bookkeeper. This anecdotal evidence (always suspect to be sure) suggests being a Goth wasn’t harmful.

Meanwhile over at Columbine High School, the two dickheads who shot up their school (I refuse to use their names) were alleged to be Goths, part of the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” but as it turns out, that was bullshit the media invented.

Still, the negativity of Goth culture has worried parents, teachers and other adults who have forgotten their own teen years. The British medical journal The Lancet has just issued a paper that got the media’s knickers in a twist. The BBC had a recent headline that read, “Young goths ‘at risk of depression’.” The Telegraph (or as I think of it, The Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald) ran, “Goths are THREE times more likely to be depressed than other teenagers, with 37 percent admitting to self-harming.” The Independent had “Goths at risk of depression or self-harming, research says.”

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Going Goth is more likely a symptom of depression and self-harm, not the cause, a new study found.

And of course, that’s not what the research said. The Lancet had an extract that stated, “Young people who self-identified as goths were more likely to be girls … [and] to have mothers with a history of depression, to have a history of emotional issues, including depression themselves, and to report issues with peers, including being bullied. Such vulnerability factors for depression suggest a degree of self-selection, with young people more susceptible to depression and self-harm being more likely to be attracted to the goth subculture.”

So the media got it exactly backwards. Goth is more likely a symptom than a cause. The researchers stated, “Our observational findings cannot be used to claim that becoming a goth increases risk of self-harm or depression.”

Of course, the truth wouldn’t sell papers. “Depressed kids attracted to Goth culture” would result in “No shit, Sherlock” from would-be readers.

The only smart thing I read in the media coverage of this came from Simon Price of The Guardian:

“Whatever it was that united us, it wasn’t depression. Anecdotal evidence is the enemy of good science, but all I can tell you is that I and my gang of flamboyant romantic dandies spent every night of the week partying like the last days of Sodom, Gomorrah and Constantinople combined. If anyone was self-harming, we didn’t know about it (admittedly, it’s often secretive behaviour), and if there was any standing on the edge of the dancefloor looking lonely, that was just commonplace shyness, and nothing a cheap pint of snakebite and black couldn’t cure.” (Snakebite and black, for those of you who grew up on Budweiser, is one part lager and one part hard sparkling cider with a dash of black currant syrup. The hangover is exquisite.)

Being a teenager sucked, and I am not surprised that some kids wind up feeling depressed. I think about my own experiences of high school, and I still get depressed. What depresses me more, though, is the fact that reporters can’t get a story about the mental health of kids straight.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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