Teens in Alternative Subcultures More Likely to Self-Harm

punk girls talking togetherSelf-injury, which includes behaviors such as cutting, burning, and scratching the skin, is a common problem among American teenagers. Depending on which estimate you believe, rates of self-harm range from 0.5% to a whopping 18%, and it can be challenging to get an accurate number since self-harm is a behavior that thrives in secrecy. Self-harm is a way for struggling people to get an outlet for painful emotions, and a new study suggests that rates of self-harm are higher among teens who self-identify as “alternative.”

The Study

The study surveyed 425 15-year-old German teenagers. Researchers defined “alternative” teens as those who self-identified as members of goth, emo, or punk subcultures. Among students who embraced these identities, the rate of self-harm was 45.5%, compared to 18% among students who did not identify as alternative. The study also found that alternative-identified teens were four to eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their mainstream peers.

Interestingly, the study found that students who identified as nerds—a subculture historically associated with exclusion and being bullied—were not more likely to self-harm. Researchers noted that teens in this group were less likely to be victimized by bullying than alternative teens, and argue that this might be why nerds don’t experience the same emotional challenges as alternative teens.

Understanding the Correlation

Parents concerned about the effect of identification with a subculture should note that the study did not find that being goth, emo, or punk causes self-harm. The study’s authors argue that, for most alternative teens, self-injury is an outlet for emotional pain. Consequently, it could be that teens who already feel excluded or depressed are more likely to join a subculture. The researchers did, however, note that a small fraction of alternative-identified teens self-mutilated to prove their group identity, harming themselves to fit into the subculture with which they identified.


  1. Cutting statistics and self-injury treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.teenhelp.com/teen-health/cutting-stats-treatment.html
  2. Young, R., Sproeber, N., Groschwitz, R. C., Preiss, M., & Plener, P. L. (2014). Why alternative teenagers self-harm: Exploring the link between non-suicidal self-injury, attempted suicide and adolescent identity. BMC Psychiatry, 14. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-14-137

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  • Susanna

    May 27th, 2014 at 3:30 PM

    Call me old fashioned but I just can’t fathom wanting to do this to myself. I don’t care what peer group one identifies with, that’s their own business and I would hope that everyone could find a group that helps them feel connected to someone else and needed. But if you have founf this in a group of friends then why the need to self mutilate? This to me seems more like it would be the actions of those who are unhappy or have no friends and not those that are actually the part of a group. This makes me want to look more closely at the kids mine are friends with and if I suspect that this is a subculture that would be more likely to encourage this behavior then I don’t want the kids hanging out with them.

  • Ryan

    May 28th, 2014 at 3:59 AM

    It’s a cry for help when they don’t have any other way to say that they are scared and lonely.

  • Lydia

    May 28th, 2014 at 3:17 PM

    This is sort of scary for many of us who have children who have migrated to a subculture because they don’t feel like they have been accepted in any other peer groups. You would hope that your kids would find a soft place to land on their feet with their friends of choice but now it seems that everywhere you look there are just more and more ways for them to be hurt.

  • Skye

    May 29th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    I never knew anyone who did this and now this seems to be a common theme for a whole lot of teens and adolescents. Why is this on the upswing, any thoughts?

  • Alyssa

    July 14th, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    I don’t think it is on an upswing. I think that like many other things in life, we’re finding out about it more now. This isn’t a recent phenomenon. People are just willing to discuss it now.

  • Alyx G.

    January 13th, 2017 at 11:04 AM

    i am 15 years old and i have personally tried killing myself because of the kids i went/go to school with. The parents i had. I was called all kinds of names and not long after i started i cutting people i went to school found out and after that i was notice as the EMO BITCH. School and the generation these days are very cruel so i hope i answered your question. Please keep in mind not to judge the people that do self harm, it makes way harder and makes them who do it to them selves feel that they are nothing and they start to feel hated. Anyway thank you and i hope you have a wonderful year.

  • GoodTherapy Admin

    January 14th, 2017 at 11:46 AM

    Dear Alex G.,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

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  • Liam

    May 18th, 2017 at 3:09 AM

    So im a cutter too but my parents dont seem to understand they think its a cult i joined this is so sadd you know…

  • Anonymous

    November 18th, 2019 at 2:19 PM

    The scenario in this article stopped me in my tracks for a minute because the girl they described was me. I’m 16, an athlete, and a serious overachiever/perfectionist (and consequently extremely self-critical). I’m also within the alternative subculture, and my mom accepts my style but feels that the music caused me to start cutting. She made me promise I’d stop listening to it. Truthfully, I started listening to that music because I was dealing with difficult emotions and the music provided a release. A lot of the lyrics are actually pretty hopeful. The ones that aren’t remind me that I’m not alone in my feelings. I’m a very sensitive person and have always been told so. I started cutting one time after she’d had another bad argument with my dad, which was before I’d even begun listening to emo music.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    November 18th, 2019 at 3:00 PM

    Thank you for sharing your comment with us. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your postal/zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

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  • stressmom

    June 3rd, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    someone once told me that it was great to be able to stay home with the kids when they were small but then she told me that she thought that it was even more important to be able to be with them as they got oldrer. i wasn’t sure that i thought that until my own kids have gotten older, and as they have moved through adolescence and now into their tween and teen years i see that she was so right. they are dealing with so many things and being pulled in so many different directions that they need you for guidance even more now than ever.

  • frank

    June 11th, 2014 at 4:18 AM

    I am also starting to think that these are the children who are also gointg o go on and be the ones who are most likely to injure others as well. Have we looked at any of these kids with guns lately and looked at the groups they are hanging out with or indentify with? Could this be part of the problem that we have been missing because I don’t know how many more incidents like this this country can take without totally having a complete overhaul of what we think that our rights as citizens are. Enough is enough.

  • Adam

    October 6th, 2014 at 2:17 AM

    Yes and no Frank think about it carefully. Everytime there is a shooting it is because a child was bullied over and over and needed a way out but nothing seemed to help. Can you imagine waking up to your alcoholic father screaming at you because you forgot to wash a dish lastnight. Then you go to school where you are slapped around by this huge guy for looking at him funny. Then entering the class you are harrased by a teacher once again because they assume that you are the culprit cause of the clothes you are wearing. And this goes on for years. What would you do?

  • Alyssa

    July 14th, 2014 at 10:14 AM

    People don’t harm themselves, generally just because they’re part of an “alternative” group. The kids you’ll find turning to punk rock are usually the ones everyone refuses to accept main stream. Again, this isn’t all of them. Punk culture is built on the “come as you are” concept. We accept the bullied, beaten, rejected, angry, lost, and lonely. You don’t have to apologize for who you are or try to be someone else.

    The music from pop punk (“You’re a star the way you are. You know you’re not fooling anyone.” “You’re a much more beautiful person than you’ll ever know.”) to hard punk (“You are what you love, not who loves you.”) is designed to strengthen and invoke emotions most punk kids aren’t allowed to show.

    If you want a correlation, there it is. We turn to punk and emo because no one is listening. We’re not supposed to get angry, so we let the music do it for us. We’re told we’re weak, so we let the music whisper to us how strong we are. We’re not supposed to cry, so we listen to the lead Singer’s voice crack again and again when he talks about his family rejecting him. We’ve been used, abused, lied to, and mistreated. So, maybe we’re on the edge. We hang on however we can. We listen to the Singer talk about his buddy who killed himself (“To tell you that sometimes I hate you for doing this to the people who loved you so. They look at me like I’m supposed to know…and man I’m tired.”) and we decide to hold on for another day.

    If you’re worried about your kids, talk to them. If your punk rock kids are cutting, I guarantee their punk friends already know and are trying to help them stop. I went to Warped Tour this year. I saw some very happy teens. I also saw a To Write Love On Her Arms Booth where they told the kids it will get better and to keep trying.

    Don’t blame the music. Take care of your kids. I’m a 26 year old punk rock mother. I’m doing fine, and I’m proud my kid can grow up learning the lessons punk culture taught me.

  • Adam

    October 6th, 2014 at 2:09 AM

    I couldn’t agree with you more. People are very quick to blame the music but forget that the music is just a way out of reality. And most of the time the people that blame the music for making their child self harm or for turning their child punk or emo are often the people that helped birth the music, the bullies that bullied all the emo an punk teens or the parents that rejected their child and when therw child turned to emo music the parent rejected the child more for embrassing his/her thoughts. And most emo or punk teens don’t even self harm. All my punk and emo friends are happy people and a so exepting and loving but because they don’t look main stream or dress like everyone else they are branded as creeps and self harming freaks but meanwhile they are just making a statment. Most of my emo friends are the top of the class students and most of them are down to earth and sucsessful.

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