It’s Bold, and Works. Metalheads Against Bullying

The metal and rock community has the knack of making young people feel comfortable with themselves – and uses it to fight bullying in Oslo and beyond

It’s bold, and works. Metalheads Against Bullying

Leif Munkelien may not be the only metalhead in his 50s, but he’s probably the only one who has used the heavy metal subculture to fight bullying and put forward unconventional ways to support the mental health of, particularly, young people.

On Monday late afternoon, after school hours during which he would have conversations one-on-one with some students in Oslo, Norway, he met me on a video call which can rarely beat a personal encounter. In Munkelien’s case, that couldn’t be more true. 

Munkelien looks very different to the people I have interviewed so far, wearing black, and a kerchief on his head, make-up on and long fingernails, his outlook makes the whole point of his work. Accepting and respecting, this is the strong message he sends to some of the people he’s known who’ve experienced bullying. Behind his apparent toughness, I encounter a soft smile that greets me with a palpable kindness.

“Those of us who live and breathe Metal and Rock ‘n Roll have become synonymous with being a little different. Many of us know the feeling of being treated disrespectfully simply just because of how we dress or the way we share this strong passion for music and a certain lifestyle. We are a true symbol for not following trends – therefore it’s important that we turn our backs to the trend that is bullying!” reads a statement on the Metalheads Against Bullying’s facebook site. 

Munkelien founded this grassroots organization in 2015, seven years after a serious accident with two back surgeries put him for four years in bed. He read an article about a boy, involved in the fight against bullying, and thought, “if he can do this, an old rocker can do it too, but differently,” Munkelien tells me. He has always loved to work with young people and had been trained as a soccer coach. Sent in early retirement due to incapacitation for work, he began devoting his time to grow more awareness, among his metal and rock community, about bullying that manifests in any shape or form.

Photo courtesy of Metalheads Against Bullying

Wading into the appearance topic, that shows that “we respect everyone, whatever you wear has nothing to do with what you are as a person,” he emphasizes how to recognize bullying. Apart from being physically abused, it has other manifestations like to be exposed to backbiting, to have a reputation spread about one self, to be excluded (also in social media), to be exposed to name-calling and unkind comments, and to receive malicious and anonymous text messages.

“When I began to talk to people in the metal and rock community, I realized that many have been bullied,” and Munkelien adds, perhaps from its own personal experience, “I always like using makeup, tattoos, piercings, but then people see you as a criminal,” although he reckons now it is changing. Like most of the great initiatives that start with a simple action, Munkelien printed out 100 t-shirts and shared them among the metal community who welcomed the initiative and wondered why no-one had done this before.

Together with other volunteers, Munkelien began to go to festivals and sell t-shirts – a way of raising awareness about their fight against bullying, which seemed effortless but was in fact well rehearsed. A musician friend of Munkelien wore their t-shirt on stage, which moved Metalheads Against Bullying’s cause from recognition to action to build self-image and self-esteem in youth. Their work spans from doing lectures at barber shops and arranging seminars, to offering help in meetings with e.g. lawyers, school, doctor etc. “Nothing is too small or too big.” That includes taking care of family members of bullied kids out for a coffee, dinner and festivals etc., because “when one kid gets bullied, it impacts on the parents, on the whole family, we also take care of them.”

Leif Munkelien in one of the workshops / Photo courtesy of Metalheads Against Bullying

Munkelien tells me he has been invited to speak with an academic professor in Germany, Dr. Thomas H. Loew specialized in psychotherapeutic medicine and psychiatry at the University of Regensburg. I wonder whether experts working in mental health therapies seek him out to explore unconventional methods tackling what is now considered a crisis in teen mental health. This month The Atlantic published a revealing article that pointed out the frustration with therapies, which despite being based on strong science, are not helping kids. “Anti-bullying programs for high schoolers seem to increase bullying,” because apparently by “teaching kids to notice their negative thoughts, the program inadvertently reinforced those thoughts.”

I speculate that Munkelien’s method is good at reinforcing positive thinking in part because he is lucky enough to have the backing of a community tough enough to take a stand for those kids, and perhaps trigger a life-changing experience in them. He explains to me how the mental health effects of bullying can be devastating during school years and into adulthood. According to research children and youth who are bullied over time are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. “They lose self-respect, and it takes a long time for a human to rebuild self-esteem. We do a lot of one-on-one talking and give youngsters self-esteem and some tools to start believing in themselves,” explains Munkelien, while I try to imagine the reaction of a boy or girl when he or she meets him for the first time.

Your child’s rights at school

In Norway there is a law against bullying. Usually an anti-bullying law requires a school to report, document and investigate bullying within a specific number of days. It also requires state schools to implement programs and have a behavior policy in place that includes measures to prevent and fight all forms of bullying among pupils. If your child is being bullied at school, the first line of defense is the anti-bullying law. 

Surprisingly, not all countries have anti-discrimination or anti-bullying laws. That is the case in Germany, where schools are not required to have programs in place to prevent discrimination, harassment and victimization, despite bullying being an acute issue. “In Norway, there is a law that schools should follow, but often they don’t do it very well and programs are not effective. Therefore a lot of parents end up contacting us,” explains Munkelien. “We join the kids in school to help them find ways to stop the way they get bullied.”

Nannestad Festival, June 2023 / Photo courtesy of Metalheads Against Bullying

The side effects of bullying to society are significant. The unsteady emotional and mental health of bullied children and youth can lead to aggressive behavior, self-harming, loneliness, substance use, and in some cases, even suicide. In the worst case scenario, some victims may fight back with extreme, sudden violence. In 2017 a 18-year-old boy, who was bullied at school for many years, opened fire in a McDonalds in Munich killing nine people.

In Norway there are on average 600 hundred suicides per year, and that in a total population of almost 5.5 million people, points out Munkelien. At least 52 suicides of the 600 hundreds are due to bullying. That means one person victim of bullying will commit suicide every week. “And for each suicide, there are 16 suicide attempts,” he adds. When we do the math, there are at least two suicide attempts every day in Norway because of bullying.

Bullying is not restricted to any age group and there are high chances that many of us have experienced harassment and still do fight it, for instance, at work. The previous metrics include bullying to youth and adults. In their last research, explains Munkelien, there are 60,000 people being bullied between the age of 10 and 16, or 5th to 10th grade. That is only in that age frame, without counting kindergarten and high school. And approximately 100,000 people are being bullied at work in Norway.

In 2017 Metalheads against Bullying started a movement called Prettier Scars. So far tattoo studios in Oslo and Bergen have given away 213 free tattoos to people that have a scar due to self-harm – a side effect of bullying. Every year more tattoo artists and studios continue to join the movement, which Munkelien wants to expand internationally.

He also sees participation in music festivals as having a good and measurable impact. I can see that, especially for teens who don’t feel comfortable going to their parents. But he says that people are skeptical when they see them with their booth for the first time. When they come back the following year, there are fewer questions about their presence. “Usually we have a big tent with a couch, a relaxing area, anybody can come sit down and chill. There is no need to say anything, or have a conversation. Some people might need some help but they will contact us later,” he says.

This year was the third time for them to attend the popular Summer Breeze in Germany. Festival-goers came by the booth and talked with Mukelien and his team, and others thanked them for last year’s advice because, since then, “they have a better life.” “You have to come back if you want to be trusted,” says Munkelien proudly.

Blåkkfestivalen, August 2022 / Photo courtesy of Fight Against Bullying

I asked him what makes us bully others? It could be a feeling of power/control, perhaps insecurity or jealousy, but also it matters if you come from a home environment of violence, abuse or good/bad financial situation or absent parents, to name a few. Munkelien seems categorical about parents’ and adults’ behavior, in general. “Nowadays it seems okay for politicians to talk down other politicians. Even how people write about other people, in social media or mainstream publications. He tells me that one of the biggest newspapers in Norway has published some pieces referring to people’s clothes and appearance. People read these kinds of stories, listen to politicians, and thus they begin to talk badly about neighbors, colleagues, etc. “And children learn from parents,” he says, “it is a vicious circle!”

I agree that, given the current state of the world, we might have gotten to the point of normalizing talking down to those who are not on “our side”. “But what is the purpose?” Munkelien asks, rather than making it become more of a normal practice.We have to agree to disagree. Don’t hate anyone, you would feel better if you are a nice person.” 

Munkelien no longer thinks that the fight against bullying is a complicated topic, yet anti-bullying programs should be available at schools in case teens feel the need to speak to someone and ask for help and support. “The intention of some programs is good but some are too mainstream, and point in one direction. You need to do research and see how it is working, and be open to adjust the program as you are walking the way,” he says.

The article at The Atlantic concluded that “Alleviating the teen-mental-health crisis may require something that is not altogether comfortable for adults: trusting that teenagers will know when they need help.” And, I could add, stopping shouting at each other in debates and using detrimental language, hidden behind culture wars.

Therapists and pedagogists are scrambling for answers to fight bullying and find mental health breakthroughs. And parents are hungry for solutions right now. Munkelien, a parent himself, with four grandchildren, says he is a mirror to his children, to prevent bullying is to simply watch out how we, adults, behave.

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