Gang Members Suffer Unprecedented Levels of Psychiatric Illness, Study Finds
Gangs are known for the physical and social threats they pose to rival gang members and their general communities. However, gang membership itself apparently poses a significant threat to mental health. According to the results of a study reported in 2013 by researchers from Queen Mary, University of London, gang members have substantially increased risks for developing harmful psychological symptoms or a diagnosable mental illness when compared to the at-large population.
Gang Membership Basics
Teenagers and people in the early stages of adulthood form the majority of gang members in the U.S., the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports. However, increasingly, preteens and younger children also become involved in gang activity. While public perception commonly links the presence of gangs to large urban areas, these organized units also appear in smaller urban areas, isolated towns and rural regions. Known consequences of gang participation include increased chances of committing violence or being a target of violence, as well as heightened chances of substance abuse/addiction or incarceration, heightened chances of involvement in risky sexual activity and lowered chances of developing useful work skills or receiving useful academic training.
The presence of certain mental health problems—including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a conduct-related condition called oppositional defiant disorder—can increase a person’s chances of getting involved with a gang. Other known risk factors for joining a gang include living in an area populated by gangs, lack of appropriate adult supervision, exposure to music or other cultural influences that applaud gang participation, lack of work or educational opportunities, a violent home environment and a home environment or family background that includes gang members. A lack of self-esteem or role models also increases gang participation risks. Many individuals cite their gang affiliation as a “home” or stabilizing influence in their lives.
Mental Health Risks
In the study reported by Queen Mary, University of London, a team of British researchers examined the connections between gang involvement, violence and mental illness in a group of over 4,600 men between the ages of 18 and 34. Roughly 2 percent of these men identified themselves as current gang members, while slightly more than 27 percent identified themselves as recent perpetrators of physical assault or some other form of violent activity. The remaining 70.4 percent of the participants described themselves as being non-violent in the five-year period prior to the start of the study.
After reviewing their findings, the authors of the study concluded that both gang members and violent men not affiliated with gangs have significantly increased risks for developing a range of specific mental disorders or symptoms common to several different mental disorders. In the case of gang members, especially prominent illnesses include alcohol or drug addiction, antisocial personality disorder or some other personality disorder, and various types of anxiety disorder. Prominent symptoms common to a number of mental illnesses include hallucinations and/or delusions (also known as psychosis) and suicidal behaviors that culminate in a suicide attempt.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the Queen Mary, University of London, study believe that they are the first researchers to assess gang members for mental health problems other than substance use disorders. They attributed the increased risks for anxiety disorders and psychosis in gang members to violence-oriented thinking, exposure to violence at the hands of others and fears about future violence exposure. In many cases, these problems manifest in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition once viewed as an anxiety disorder in the U.S., but now classified along with several other illnesses as a trauma- and stressor-related disorder. The authors of the study attributed the rate of suicidal behavior and suicide attempts in gang members to both the psychological strain of mental illness and the impulsive nature of violent behavior, which can turn inward in some individuals.
Generally speaking, gang members and non-gang members who engage in violence are younger than non-violent men and also have a higher rate of unemployment. In the U.K., which has a socialized medical system, gang members also seek access to mental health services more often than non-violent men. The authors of the study note that the men in the participating age range are typically gang “lifers;” they don’t know if the same problems with mental illness appear in short-term or younger gang members.