Five Years of Heavy Metal Therapy: Dialectics in Community Psychology

Kate Quinn, Charlotte Gaukroger, and Tom Carter introduce Heavy Metal Therapy (HMT), a community psychology initiative that responds to the diverse experiences of the metal music scene.

CW: the following piece mentions self-harm and suicide.

Community psychology maintains that empowering communities is necessary for improving the health and wellbeing of marginalised groups (Rappaport, 1987; Trickett, 2009). It adopts an ecological perspective which, unlike individualised psychological approaches, centres on the power relations between systems and individuals within a community (Hagan & Smail, 1996). This includes the use of arts and music community networks and spaces.

The heavy metal music community is an alternative subculture with its own social conventions and rules. There is some evidence that it may be a marginalised community subject to discrimination (e.g., Garland & Hodkinson, 2014). Heavy Metal Therapy (HMT) is a peer support project, predominantly operating online, that offers a space for metal music enthusiasts to share stories of mental health and trauma recovery, offer support to one another, and to discuss how metal music relates to mental health (Quinn, 2019).

HMT can be classified as a community psychology project because it builds community resources and amplifies the voices of those who are marginalised but united through music.  HMT provides resources based on the lived experience of people in the heavy metal community.  These include online recovery stories in several formats (video, prose, podcast), peer presence at metal events, peer-support sessions, engagement in research/teaching, and co-produced resources like playlists and guides to navigating mental health challenges.

Over the course of the 4 years developing the project, and an unexpected but welcome popularity, it has become necessary to consider that some aspects of heavy metal culture are less inclusive than others. This can be of detriment to the well-being of community members. This essay uses an ecological and community psychology framework to discuss how such exclusions may be addressed.

‘Metal is sexist and racist.’ 

Possible misogyny and racism within the metal music scene, or certainly among some sub-genres, has been widely discussed in metal music studies (Spraklen, 2020).  The consensus is that there are at least some elements of the metal scene that perpetuate gender stereotypes and at least some incidents of intolerance (discussed in Dawes, 2015).  The discipline of metal music studies, which is where much of this work has been focussed, is predominantly theoretical (rather than practical). As such, while these incidents are well documented as sociological phenomenon, the literature does not suggest how they can be practically addressed in the community.

Many people in the metal community describe an inclusive and welcoming environment. However, this can create a dissonance for those who have had negative experiences in the scene, with some people reporting feeling further excluded due to what they perceive as a denial of their experiences (Dawes, 2015).  There are likely to be in- and out- groups within the community and assumed in-group homogeneity can undermine the diverse experiences of members. There are some examples of members of metal/alternative communities promoting a greater degree of inclusivity and tolerance. A notable example is the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, which works to combat hate crime against people from alternative subcultures. This follows the murder of Sophie Lancaster after she and her boyfriend were attacked due to their identity as goth/alternative. The foundation, however, focuses on external/outsider discrimination more broadly rather than issues within the metal community.

Metal fetishises mental health problems including the ‘glorification’ of self-harm.’ 

Metal music and associated videos and album art often explicitly refer to experiences of mental distress (e.g. McKinnon et al, 2020). Metal fans describe finding this validating, but that the depiction of such issues can also be inaccurate or a ‘glorification’ (Messick et al, 2020).  In addition, concerns have been raised that heavy metal music may encourage self-harm or suicidal behaviour (Scheel and Westefield, 1999) although the literature is mixed.  Baker and Brown (2016) discuss the issue of self-harm in Slipknot’s lyrics, arguing that these narratives may be validating and protective, rather than encouraging of self-harm. Evidence suggests that merely talking about suicide and self-harm does not increase risk. In fact, acknowledging and discussing suicidality may actually reduce suicidal ideation (Dazzi et al, 2014).

Metal music is commercial and this does not fit well in a support community. 

The heavy metal music industry is a multi-million-pound industry, and engaging with the subculture involves spending money: e.g., through attending concerts and buying merchandise.  People with mental health problems are more likely to face social and economic disadvantage, and thus may be excluded from such spaces (Allen et al, 2014).  However, there is some evidence that metal fans are increasingly able to engage with the scene without significant personal expenditure through online communities. This is discussed by Rowe (2015) in her work on emerging metal youth identities, where some metal fans had not met another ‘metalhead’ in person or been to a concert.  Heavy Metal Therapy is an online space that offers free resources and can be accessed by anyone with access to the internet.

‘Many metal musicians have ended their own lives or live in ways that do not appear to be pro-social.’ 

Individual cases include the recent disclosures implicating Marilyn Manson in domestic and sexual abuse, and the suicides of notable vocalists in popular rock bands, such as Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell. There is some evidence that reports of celebrity suicide seems to increase the incidence of population suicide, especially with the method used by the celebrity (Niederkrotenthaler et al, 2020). Furthermore, examples of abusive behaviour by artists may perpetuate intolerant attitudes both within and towards the metal community at large. As an organisation, HMT attempts to provide a space to discuss these topics via blogs and on social media posts and applies a moderation process to social media engagements to facilitate ensure inclusivity and safety.

These ethical questions within the metal community prompt questions about how to address problematic experiences in communities in general. Khan-Harris (2004) speaks of ‘reflexive anti- reflexivity’ (or ‘knowing but pretending not to know’) as a phenomenon that maintains intolerance in the metal scene through reluctance to actively address challenges. There are some dialectical aspects within the community: it can be inclusive and intolerant simultaneously. 

Pursuing an objective ‘truth’ regarding which of these seemingly opposing concepts (inclusivity and intolerance) is accurate is comparable to the dialectical dilemmas addressed by Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT; Linehan, 2014). Marsha Linehan, a key proponent of DBT, advocates using dialectical strategies to synthesise acceptance of the situation as it is alongside necessary change, helping to become ‘unstuck’ from a seemingly ‘either/or’ position into an acceptance of ‘both/and’ perspective (Linehan, 1993). These principles can be applied to the oppositional experiences of the metal community, to facilitate richer understanding and promote positive change.

There is a perception of the ‘metal community’ as a coherent whole with shared values, making it difficult to identify a collective attitude towards intolerance. However, metal is actually an ‘imagined community’, with a variety of disparate aspects (e.g. Spracklen, 2016).  While there may be some mental health benefits to the ‘imagined community’ (such as a sense of belonging), the lack of evidence of homogeneity within the wider group opens opportunities to build a sub-community.

In Heavy Metal Therapy (HMT) we have been open about the values and principles of the organisation.[1] We will use them here to outline proposed solutions:

1. We are all equal partners. We aim to take an open and non-defensive stance on issues within the community.  We recently produced a ‘guide to inclusivity in gig spaces’ which shared experiences of those who have struggled with access. We have a page devoted to academic research which is summarised in an accessible way, including areas of contention that highlight some of the problems outlined above.

2. Having clear principles within the community enables the space to be moderated. In shared HMT spaces, the rules and expectations are made clear. All moderators are offered information and support on implementing a consistent process.

3. We are shaped by the community and regularly seek feedback about the things that members want addressing. This happens via social media and through encouraging those who reach out to the project.

4. We signpost people to relevant organisations if they want to be more involved in activist circles within the metal community. We have run some initiatives ourselves that support messages of inclusivity, such as the guide mentioned above that can be accessed at Somewhere I Belong – Heavy Metal Therapy.

The heavy metal music community might be considered both inclusive and intolerant in parts, with the documented potential for this to go unchallenged. This might present a difficulty for fair and equal empowerment of community members and the overall health of the community. Heavy Metal Therapy aims to acknowledge and address some of these challenges through working within and alongside the community, including amplifying the voices of those who have experienced discrimination within the scene. 

[1] The 10 HMT Principles – Heavy Metal Therapy

About the authors

Dr Kate Quinn is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the community interest company Heavy Metal Therapy, a mental health peer support project focused on the alternative/heavy metal music community.  Her research interests are in community psychology, extreme states and the well-being impact of extreme music.

Dr Charlotte Gaukroger is a Clinical Psychologist working in inpatient acute and crisis mental health settings within the NHS.  Having previously studied sociology, gender and cultural studies, she has interests in constructs around mental health, trauma and distress, and the way in which family, health and social systems interact with personal experiences.

Tom Carter is a Trainee Clinical Psychologist at the University of Leeds. He is interested in critical/community psychology approaches to research and practice. His other research interests are in discursive psychology, with a particular emphasis on queer men.


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