When Take That announced their split in 1996, press reports were feverish about the idea of fans - distraught about the news - threatening to commit suicide. We do not need to identify a new “BoyBand Breakup Syndrome” to cope with the news that Zayn has left One Direction, but there is every point in parents being particularly attentive to their children, to make sure they cope with their loss in a healthy and productive way.
The accuracy of claims about the impact of boyband breakups is often disputed. I worked in child and adolescent psychology services in the North West of England at the time of the Take That split, and I certainly recall my workload increasing in the few weeks immediately afterwards. Many parents felt the need to refer their children (mostly pre-teen and teenage daughters) to the psychology service directly or through their own GPs.
I did get the impression that this was done by many parents in a pre-emptive way – not because their child was displaying excessive distress at the time, but in order to try and beat any queue or waiting list should such depressive or anxious symptoms develop. This manifested in a surge of screening appoints for a deluge of new clients - young people who may have felt (coerced into) the need to talk through their upset, distress and feelings of betrayal that the dissolution of their beloved pop band had caused them. That is how exactly powerful music can be to younger people and it should not be casually disregarded by us grown-ups as mere juvenilia.
As anticipated, several lines on social media are showing that many young people are dipping into self-harm as a way of coping with, or even trying to prevent Zayn's departure. The #Cut4Zayn hashtag is an attempt at manipulating events, with Directioners apparently threatening to self-harm if Zayn leaves the band. This is nothing new for Twitter – and previous similar trends have been revealed to be predominantly the work of hoaxers – but nevertheless it gives an indication of how much despair some fans are feeling. If such manipulation were to be effective, and Zayn returned in order to keep his fans happy, this would send a dangerous message about self-harming to young people. In any case, the hashtag is a dangerous provocation at a time like this.
When Diana died in 1997 her passing led to much comment in the psychiatric and medical literature about subsequent increases in hospital admissions by women who identified with her. It was clear that the UK saw a form of public grieving that it had never seen before in living memory – even Winston Churchill’s death did not seem to have such an emotional impact and level of displays of public grief as Diana’s death did. However claims of such increases in grieving people seeking help from the NHS for depression, anxiety, and other non-specific “trivial” were also countered by some research which suggested that such increases in service-demand did not really occur at the time.
What is more interesting to me as a psychologist lies in what it is about people who identify so much with the Zayns, the Dianas or the Garys that they struggle to cope at the “death” or departure of someone they did not really know. I am also equally intrigued by what many of these grieving fans will do as a way to cope with their loss. For some, a good cry, an emotional outburst or a period of sulking (whether they are aged 10 or 20) can be very therapeutic. There will however be a sizable minority for whom this will not suffice, and they may turn such sadness and feelings of loss upon themselves, and may resort to self-harm or other destructive and secretive behaviours that may go unnoticed by friends and family.
Parents may be far removed from the digital lives of young people, and have no idea that such a trend as #Cut4Zayn exists, but they should talk to their children if the more obvious sings - crying and becoming withdrawn - do not lift soon. Coping behaviours learned in these formative years can shape the way such people cope with problems in the future.
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