March 5, 2010

Mr. Crowley's Suicide Solution

Wine is fine,
But whiskey's quicker.
Suicide is slow with liquor.
Take a bottle, drown your sorrows,

ResearchBlogging.orgSo goes the first verse of 'Suicide Solution', an infamous song of Ozzy Osbourne's that deals with the dangers of alcohol abuse, and which was the central feature in two legal cases against him where he was charged with inciting the suicides of heavy metal fans after they listened to the song. In fact, controversy has dogged Osbourne since the beginning of his career with the founding of the influential heavy metal group Black Sabbath, who are credited with having invented the genre. Although Osbourne was found not guilty in those cases, other related matters referred to the issues of including satanic imagery in song lyrics, stage performances and album covers, as well as allegations of surreptitious backmasking of satanic messages in said albums, all things that were said to be bad infuences on young adults. Osbourne has claimed he harbours no satanic beliefs and that the inclusion of such imagery in his musical corpus was purely for reasons of showmanship.

Similarly, the music of Marilyn Manson is said to have contributed to at least one fan's suicide. But more seriously the students who carried out the Columbine High School massacre and the SuccessTech Academy shootings were said to have been heavily influenced by Manson's music. Around 50 churches were also burned down between 1992 and 1996 in Norway, for which many fans of the developing black metal scene claimed responsibility.

It isn't just the fans who are supposedly influenced adversely. Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, better known by his stage name 'Dead', was notorious for mutilating himself on stage with hunting knives and broken glass. Finally in 1991, and almost as a fitting homage to his nom de plume, he sat down among his bandmates and calmly slashed his wrists and neck with small cuts before inserting a shotgun into his mouth and blowing his brains everywhere. Other bandmates were famous for regular conflicts, culminating in the brutal murder of guitarist Øystein Aarseth by bassist Varg Vikernes.

If one looks deeper in the issue, one is sure to find many more horror stories of murders and depressive suicides with the common denominator of metal music. Indeed, one wouldn't be blamed for automatically assuming that individuals attracted to such music may tend to be prone to depression and/or exhibit anti-social behaviour of other kinds. But is there any actual data to substantiate this?

Vaughan Bell of was kind enough to alert and send me a paper published late last year that attempts to analyse if there is a link between mental health and the enjoyment of such music. The main research questions that the study sought to answer were:
  • Do metal music fans in France exhibit great levels of anxiety and depression?
  • What variables mediate the levels of anxiety and depression for metal music fans?
Recours et al. (2009) surveyed 333 French metal fans by administering the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS), a simple test that aims to detect, obviously, notable anxiety and depression. Among other things, they analysed differences in gender, age, status, education, motivation and level of participation in metal culture. This included intimate items such as the behaviour of participants at metal concerts and whether they had body modifications such as piercings and tattoos.

Summary of the very interesting results: Out of 333 participants, 282 were male (87.8%) and 39 were female (12.15%), the mean age of which was 22.6 years old. (age range: 13-44 years). Half of them were students, 41.7% of the rest being employed and the remainder being both students and employed. Average years immersed in metal music culture was 9.22 years with average concerts attended per year was 16. Slightly over one-third had a tattoo or piercing while just 5.3 had a combination of both. The most popular subgenres of metal music indulged in were death metal (37.7%), black metal (22.7%) and thrash metal (18%). Motivations for attending concerts included the expectedly high 95.9% to enjoy the music, followed by 84.6% attending for the "ambience". Only 33.9% cited drinking as a reason to attend, and very small percentages of people attended in order to sample drugs (4.98%), sell drugs (2.72%), and to fight (0.91%).

Factor analyses revealed a three-dimensional structure, and an orthagonal rotation was performed to analyse how pertinent the depression and anxiety factors were. These two factors ended up explaining 38.71% of the variance (27.55% = anxiety, 11.17% depression), with reliability factors using Cronbach's Alpha being 0.70 and 0.67 respectively. In plain language, this means that - based on the answers provided - the HADS test was 70% and 67% reliable in detecting anxiety and depression respectively.

All in all, the results showed that the respondents exhibited low levels of anxiety and depression. The HADS instrument can be used to determine an arbitrary cutoff point as there is no generally accepted cutoff. The creators of the instrument, Zigmond & Snaith (1994), recommended a cutoff of 7/8 for possible and 10/11 for probable anxiety or depression. Following previous research Recours et al. chose 11 as a cutoff score for each dimension of anxiety and depression, implying that respondents exhibiting a score greater than 11 would be considered to have a serious level of anxiety or depression. The results found the average scores to be 7.26 and 3.76 for anxiety and depression respectively, far below the chosen cutoff levels. However, as in all populations there were some individuals scoring above the cutoff (15.6% anxiety, 3.4% depression) but these cannot be said to be due to the influence of metal music.

Multiple regression analyses revealed that none of the other variables (age, gender, concert attendance, etc.) had a link to mental health in terms of either anxiety or depression, but surprisingly the same analyses revealed a relationship between mental health and writing song lyrics, drinking at concerts, and having scarifications. Also, links were revealed between mental health, education level and employment status. However, these relationships were still nowhere near the 'danger' cutoff point of 11.

In conclusion, the authors discuss the huge gender bias towards males among other things, and suggest it as being 'very' representative of the culture of metal music. Maybe so, but let's get to discussing the drawbacks of this study:

The study was carried out over the Internet. The HADS instrument is effectively a questionnaire that was administered over a non-personal medium, but even with personal contact there is no way to certify the replies as genuine. In this way Internet-administered tests contain an extra layer of uncertainty. The authors state that they considered 'personal' measures such as approaching "morbidly dressed" metal fans on the street, but this would isolate metal fans who do not attire themselves in such an "obvious" way. But at least they entered 10 different Internet forums dedicated to metal music in order to have a realistic possibility of contacting individuals with an almost certain interest in metal music and culture. However, another category of isolation occurs here as genuinely depressed people are least likely to complete a questionnaire.

Also, by the authors' admission, France happens to be a country where the growth of cults are strictly controlled, and where "French officials are particularly concerned about Satanic cults related to metal music". Apparently a Govt. ministry has warned parents to limit their children's exposure to metal music and also to monitor their access to metal-oriented websites. Could it be possible that the majority of the French metaller population aren't exposed to the most extreme of metal subgenres? After all, throughout the entire paper scant mention is made of any specific group and metal music is referred to in categorical format; black, death, and thrash. Passing mentions are made of Slayer, Black Sabbath, Megadeth and Metallica, bands that have a certain notoriety but are also decidedly mainstream. Aren't French teenagers aware of bands like Arch Enemy, Goatwhore, Amon Amarth, Dimmu Borgir, Extol, Kult ov Azazel, and others? These are things to consider.

It was also interesting to observe how the results pointed to an unnoted third factor before orthogonal rotation enabled relevance to the anxiety and depression factors. So I agree with the authors that further research needs to be undertaken in order to determine which factor(s) can aptly describe the 61.3% of the variance that wasn't accounted for by anxiety and depression.

In closing, the authors offer reasons for why the general conclusions point to lower levels of anxiety and depression among metal lovers. It is proposed that the predominant themes of satanism, gloom and death give airing to subjects infrequently discussed in society and which are treated in a somewhat taboo manner. Although metal music is classed as entertainment in contrast to real images of death, it presents such themes as "typical occurrences that are not outside the norm" and I interpret that as a desensitising factor of sorts. So metal music lovers who frequently indulge in this pastime are more often exposed to morbid themes that have the effect of eventually desensitising them and enabling them to treat it more of the entertainment that it is supposed to be.

But then, what of all the horror stories referred to earlier? What about Dead's suicide? What about the terrible Marilyn Manson-inspired school shootings? Ozzy Osbourne's "satanism"? A tentative proposal is that metal music has a malevolent effect on individuals with certain vulnerabilities, and this is precisely why further research is needed in order to uncover these details. It is for this reason that I do not heartily share the confident assertions of the authors that their "representative" sample (from one country!) indicates low levels of anxiety and depression among metal lovers. Typical quote:
"The results indicate that fans of metal music are in good health with respect to anxiety and depression ... [and] indicate that, contrary to critics who suggest that images of death and destruction in metal music have harmful consequences, the mental health of fans of this type of music is generally good."
Hmmm, when they put it that way it's hard not to agree, but only tentatively. A more accurate representation of this study is that it simply provides an indicative snapshot rather than a comprehensive description.

Speaking of which, it's been ages since I've been to a Motörhead concert...

Recours, R., Aussaguel, F., & Trujillo, N. (2009). Metal Music and Mental Health in France Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 33 (3), 473-488 DOI: 10.1007/s11013-009-9138-2

Snaith, R. Philip, and Anthony S. Zigmond (1994). HADS: Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. Windsor: NFER Nelson.


  1. In fact, controversy has dogged Osbourne since the beginning of his career with the founding of the influential heavy metal group Black Sabbath, who are credited with having invented the genre.

    Black Sabbath basically just invented music - it was all warming up before then...

  2. You might want to take Philip Snaith's opinions on suicide with a pinch of salt. For whatever his qualifications in psychiatry why, it didn;t stop him doing himself that way, reputedly.