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Why alternative teenagers self-harm: exploring the link between non-suicidal self-injury, attempted suicide and adolescent identity

Robert Young1*, Nina Sproeber2, Rebecca C Groschwitz2, Marthe Preiss2 and Paul L Plener2

Author Affiliations

1 MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8RZ, Scotland

2 Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Ulm, Steinhoevelstr. 5, D- 89075 Ulm, Germany

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BMC Psychiatry 2014, 14:137  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-14-137

Published: 22 May 2014



The term ‘self-harm’ encompasses both attempted suicide and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). Specific adolescent subpopulations such as ethnic or sexual minorities, and more controversially, those who identify as ‘Alternative’ (Goth, Emo) have been proposed as being more likely to self-harm, while other groups such as ‘Jocks’ are linked with protective coping behaviours (for example exercise). NSSI has autonomic (it reduces negative emotions) and social (it communicates distress or facilitates group ‘bonding’) functions. This study explores the links between such aspects of self-harm, primarily NSSI, and youth subculture.


An anonymous survey was carried out of 452 15 year old German school students. Measures included: identification with different youth cultures, i.e. Alternative (Goth, Emo, Punk), Nerd (academic) or Jock (athletic); social background, e.g. socioeconomic status; and experience of victimisation. Self-harm (suicide and NSSI) was assessed using Self-harm Behavior Questionnaire and the Functional Assessment of Self-Mutilation (FASM).


An “Alternative” identity was directly (r ≈ 0.3) and a “Jock” identity inversely (r ≈ -0.1) correlated with self-harm. “Alternative” teenagers self-injured more frequently (NSSI 45.5% vs. 18.8%), repeatedly self-injured, and were 4–8 times more likely to attempt suicide (even after adjusting for social background) than their non-Alternative peers. They were also more likely to self-injure for autonomic, communicative and social reasons than other adolescents.


About half of ‘Alternative’ adolescents’ self-injure, primarily to regulate emotions and communicate distress. However, a minority self-injure to reinforce their group identity, i.e. ‘To feel more a part of a group’.