A scientific research study years in the making was finally released last week. The study, published in The Lancet, implies an increased association between teens who identify as Goth, those diagnosed with depression, and those who self-harm.
“[...] compared with young people who did not identify as a Goth,” the study says, “those who indicated that they somewhat identified as being a Goth were 2.33 times more likely to report having self-harmed, whereas those who very much identified themselves as being a Goth were more than five times more likely to report self-harm.”
The survey took a sample set of thousands of children, from birth to 18 years—the age at which depression peaks. Researchers questioned the respondents at 15 years old, narrowing the field down to those who identified as Goth. Three years later, the researchers came back to those same teens, used standardized diagnosis methods to evaluate their mental health, and tallied the results.
It’s an exhaustive evaluation. Interestingly, researchers came up with eight different groups teens identified with: sporty, populars, skaters, chavs, loners, keeners, bimbos, and Goths. You can look at the entire thing right here.
“Thus, as we originally postulated,” the researchers write in the study’s discussion section, “the reported association between Goth affiliation and depression could be due to social selection factors not addressed adequately in the previous study.”
As with many studies of this type, the question of “why?” goes largely unanswered. More than anything, this study seemed to reinforce stereotypes, which—in a survey study—is dangerous, especially when implying a correlation. So, how would this stack up next to the experience of those who identify intensely with the macabre?
I needed to talk to some Goths.
I reached out on Reddit, the sidewalk (or bowels, depending on who you ask) of the Internet, to assemble a digital Goth “man-on-the-street.” A few running themes connected the people I talked to: First, the majority wrote to me after sundown, even though I’d written to them in the afternoon. These self-professed night owls overwhelming started identifying as Goth in their early teens, they told me. They also embraced a darker side of humanity—the reality that “we’re all bound for the grave,” as one wrote.
Clare Castleberry, a 35-year-old writer from Port Vincent, Louisiana, described it like this: “Being Goth to me means appreciating beauty in darkness, exploring the idea of the ‘other’—anything we as a society are uncomfortable with or tend to automatically dismiss. We embody and are willing to explore this ‘otherness,’ I think, in an attempt to make people think, question their beliefs, or change their perceptions.”
According to my Goth pen pals, it is this exact engagement with the darkness that makes the subculture more willing to talk about issues of mental health.
“Goths are, at very least, much more in tune with such issues than the average person,” Jack Corax, a 21-year-old PhD candidate living in New York, told me. “Goths tend to value honestly engaging with emotions, and the culture definitely has this slightly perverse sense of community stemming from a ‘we're all fucked up in some way or another’ sort of vibe. I want to stress that Goths don't ‘glorify’ or fetishize death/suicide/mental illness; we're just (on average, anyway) much more willing to talk about/understand them, as opposed to having them be taboo.”
“Being Goth [means] being able to express your darker emotions (greed, lust, grief, anger, agony) and get them out of your system,” a Los Angeles-based Goth named Jill Ford wrote to me. “After that, it becomes much easier to adjust and have a regular life, because you don't have to hide that you have problems. You can be a full, capable person with them.”
Indeed, Ford personally took this route: “Goth is the way I chose to tell my own personal truth. Funnily enough, the second I was able to start 'being Goth,' I was able to relax and actually became decently bubbly and cheerful.”
She also lamented the flagging state of mental health care in the country: “For me, there was a support system, but I created it myself. I think this entire country needs better understanding and access for psychiatric care, because sweeping things under the rug does absolutely nothing useful. Embracing the feelings isn't all of it; you have to deal with them, work through them, rise above them, and admitting to those feelings is the first step in a marathon.”
The study did not compare the number of Goth teens diagnosed with depression, against the rate of depression for all teens.
“I think that the reason that stereotype comes up is that a lot of people that dabble in trying to be Goth are often very young teenagers who don't know who they are yet or what they want,” said Felix P., a 23-year-old who has identified as Goth for about 10 years. “They see something that is often considered counterculture and they attach to it because teenagers often feel alone, or outcast, or weird, or socially awkward, and like any common interest or hobby, it gives people something to feel connected by. Most of the people that are Goth and self-harm are probably those kids.”
One Goth from the suburbs of Chicago, who asked to be identified as The Count, said, “The stigma about mental illness that physical illness does not carry, is much less prevalent among Goths. In fact, because Goths often value learning, knowledge of the human condition, and psychology and philosophy, I think there is a higher percentage of emotionally well adjusted Goths than in mainstream culture.”
Corax took it a step further: “Most of us are really pretty goofy—I mean, after all, if you find the concept of death entertaining, there’s not much you can’t laugh at.”