Gang culture

The mental health needs of gangs and gang-affiliated young people

Despite a steady decline in adult and youth crime in Britain, in certain parts of our towns and cities and amongst certain social groups, life has become far more dangerous for children and young people. One immediate reason for this is the proliferation of violent youth gangs and the culture that they ferment.

A study led by Queen Mary University of London found rates of disorders including psychosis, antisocial personality disorder, alcohol dependence, and anxiety higher than expected in the general population.

The study of 4,664 men aged 18 to 34 in Britain served to identify associations between violent behaviours and mental issues or use of mental health services, highlighting the specific effects of gang membership.

A more recent briefing produced as part of the Ending Gang and Youth Violence Programme stated that violence is an inherent part of gang culture and gang members are at increased risk of involvement in violence as both perpetrators and victims.

Analyses suggest that in gang members, this increase in risk could be related to dwelling on violent thoughts, having experienced violent victimisation and fear of further victimisation. Long-term exposure to violence is associated with psychological problems including depression, conduct disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Young people with poor mental wellbeing can be drawn to gang-affiliation

Gangs may offer a source of support to isolated young people who lack strong family or social relationships. Young people who join gangs often have troubled childhood histories and gang membership may provide a sense of belonging that is central to their social identity.

Fear and anxiety over future victimisation can draw vulnerable young people to gangs due to a perceived need for protection, and can also prevent those involved with gangs from leaving them.

Gang activities may appeal to young people with traits such as impulsivity, sensation seeking and externalising behaviours, which can be markers of conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. Children who show these traits may also be actively recruited by gangs.

A certain status may be associated with gang involvement, and individuals with low self-esteem may join gangs to bolster their sense of self-worth.

In the development of gangs and the involvement of gang members, there are certain key points at which it can be particularly important to intervene. This is one of the reasons it's so important for those tackling gangs to share knowledge and speak to each other, so we are all able to identify those points.

(Excerpts from The mental health needs of gang-affiliated young people - A briefing produced as part of the Ending Gang and Youth Violence programme).