In this piece, a psychologist and heavy metal enthusiast reflects on the creation of the peer support project Heavy Metal Therapy, a web-based resource of recovery stories, research, music playlists and blogs about heavy metal music and mental wellbeing. The project centres on the website heavymetaltherapy.co.uk and is supported by social media accounts on Instagram (@heavymetaltherapy) and Facebook.
Metalhead = fan of heavy metal music
Heavy metal music has often been subject to negative judgements about its potentially ‘extreme’ content in terms of the dark themes in its lyrics and harsh sounds. Many people ranging from concerned parents of disgruntled teenagers through to mental health researchers thought that listening to it was probably not very good for you. Research even suggested it could be linked to things like feeling suicidal (Scheel and Westefeld, 1999). So what place do I have as a Clinical Psychologist in talking about the possible wellbeing benefits of heavy metal music?
“Heavy metal is always going to be there. At its core, it’s all about a primitive connection we all need to keep in our lives”. Rob Halford
This is partially a personal story, about finding extreme music to be a comfort through times of stress and anxiety, and partly about experiences in working therapeutically with young adults in my work in early intervention services. It’s also about being influenced by the theory of Voice Dialogue and the Hearing Voices Peer Support Movement, and thinking about how these ideas can be applied in the age of social media.
“Sometimes when pain escapes me, when right and wrong escape me, I write people I’ll never know a letter, because that’s what a song is” King 810, Wade in the Water
While the early research into heavy metal and mental health showed mixed findings, it was identified early on that people who felt alienated from society tended to be drawn to heavy metal (Arnett, 1996). More recently researchers have looked into how listening to metal can be a helpful way of processing anger (Sharman & Dingle, 2015), and that the community of metalheads is helpful and supportive, especially where people have felt marginalised or bullied before (Rowe & Guerin, 2018). I noticed that in my job in Early Intervention I seemed to work with a lot of people who were metalheads like me, and in actuality there were a lot of commonalities with those clients, things like struggles with identity and feeling marginalised that may have drawn them (well, us) to the music.
Unlike lots of mainstream ‘popular’ music, metal encompasses a wide range of themes, some of which are quite complex ideas like ambivalent relationships, thoughts of harming people and previous traumas. Metal music often makes references to experiences like hearing voices, feeling suicidal, self-harming, and also often conveys feelings of emotional vulnerability. There is a sense of connection to ‘darker’ ideas or energies, or things that are uncomfortable and therefore pushed away. Many people have said to me that they find it helpful to know that other people have experienced similar thoughts or feelings, and in some cases that those people have got through it. In other cases, the concept that there are many other fans of this music in the metal community also indicates that there are many people who relate to the experiences referred to in the songs, which again can be helpful in terms of reducing isolation.
“Everybody hates me now, so fuck it
Blood’s on my face and my hands
And I don’t know why I’m not afraid to cry
But that’s none of your business”
Slipknot, people = shit
I use a lot of Voice Dialogue ideas in my clinical practice. Voice Dialogue is a psychoanalytically informed approach to understanding aspects of ourselves. It has been adapted for working with people who hear voices which is my specific area of interest. It is based on this idea that we disown or ‘push away’ aspects of ourselves due to our past experiences or societal expectations of us. For example, people often disown more angry or vulnerable parts, though of course everyone is different. Sometimes recognising and ‘honouring’ our pushed away selves can be helpful, and equally continually struggling to ‘keep away’ from our disowned selves can create distress. In Voice Dialogue work we sometimes try to help people to both recognise and find healthy ways to pay attention to their disowned selves, sometimes through directly talking with selves or voices. Often these selves communicate in ways that are symbolic rather than literal, so the angry part that tells us to kill other people could be representative of feeling that the word is unsafe, for example. It struck me in my clinical work how much metal music relates to selves or emotions that often get pushed away or regarded as unacceptable. I wondered if metal could be something that helps people to honour those parts in a non-destructive way, which in itself is quite therapeutic. There is also the idea that finding value in these more extreme themes connects with the symbolic nature of more disowned selves, rather than adopting literal interpretations of the lyrics (there is no real evidence that listening to metal is associated with violent behaviour, for example).
“Everything I was afraid of when I was growing up, I’ve become. I’ve taken on my nightmares, like the devil and the end of the world, and I’ve become those things”. Marilyn Manson
In my work with people who have extreme or unusual experiences, including hearing voices, I have been particularly influenced by the Hearing Voices Movement. They value peer support as an approach for supporting people with distressing voice hearing, often meeting up in hearing voices groups and sharing recovery stories in this setting or more formally recording them. I recognise the role of peer support and the power this can have, I also know that not all people want or need support from services and that there are many ways to manage difficult experiences. There is a long tradition in peer support movements and narrative practice around the sharing of recovery stories and the power this can have for other people. The metal community is generally supportive of one another, so there seemed like an opportunity to create a peer support space for people who like metal and sometimes struggle with their mental health. As I work with a lot of young people, and many people come to metal in adolescence, it appeared that social media would be an important forum to do this. I acknowledge that there are limitations to social media and some aspects of it are negative, but it is a reality of our time, and hope there are also opportunities to provide something positive.
“In the end, the whole Internet thing kills me, because you can use it as a positive thing or you can read into all the negativity. And I think you’ve gotta put out positive energy, put out cool viral stuff, and then just stay out of people’s opinions”. Nikki Sixx
Heavy Metal Therapy is a webpage with recovery stories that people have sent to me about how they’ve found metal helpful, some reflections on the research and some playlists. This is linked to social media where we share lyrics and quotes as well as relevant articles and videos. In terms of the peer support element, in addition to the stories, the stuff that is shared is often sent to me by metalheads as they find it’s something that resonates with them. People interact with the posts and we build the stories together for the webpage. I provide a psychologically informed moderation and ‘content filter’ for the posts. It has raised some interesting challenges for me as a psychologist, in terms of how I feel about boundaries which are different from the traditional NHS one to one work. I also feel that there is a difference between how heavy metal therapy is run ‘attitudinally’ compared to some of the more mainstream mental health promotion sites on social media, in that it has an empowerment model approach and very little medical model influence. I am excited to see how it continues to grow as a community development project.
Dr Kate Quinn is a clinical psychologist from the UK, working in NHS services in early intervention for psychosis. She is also a fan of heavy metal music. Kate’s background is in working with young people who have extreme or unusual experiences that may be conceptualised as psychosis, such as hearing voices. She is interested in voice dialogue and community psychology approaches, and how we can engage young people in mental health support beyond the therapy room, such as via social media.
Arnett, Jeffrey. 1996. Metalheads: Heavy metal music and adolescent alienation. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Rowe, Paula and Bernard Guerin. 2018. “Contextualizing the mental health of metal youth: A community for social protection, identity, and musical empowerment.” Journal of Community Psychology 46 (4): 429-441.
Scheel, Karen R. and John S. Westefeld. 1999. “Heavy metal music and adolescent suicidality: An empirical investigation.” Adolescence 34: 253-73.
Sharman, Leah and Genevieve A. Dingle. 2015. “Extreme metal music and anger processing.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 9: 272.