New research shows that young men in the UK who are members of gangs suffer from “unprecedented” levels of psychiatric illness, placing a heavy burden on mental health services.
The study by researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, found that of the gang members surveyed:
- 85.8 percent had an antisocial personality disorder
- Two-thirds were alcohol dependent
- 25.1 percent screened positive for psychosis
- More than half (57.4 percent) were drug dependent
- Around a third (34.2 percent) had attempted suicide
- More than half (58.9 percent) had an anxiety disorder
The study surveyed 4,664 men between the ages of 18 to 34 in Britain. Researchers noted the sample was weighted to include significant numbers of young men from areas with high gang membership (Hackney and Glasgow East), lower social classes, and areas with a higher-than-average population of ethnic minority residents.
Of the men surveyed, 3,284 (70.4 percent) reported they had not been violent in the past five years, 1,272 (27.3 percent) said they had assaulted another person or been involved in a fight, and 108 (2.1 percent) said they were currently a member of a gang. Using these results, the men were split into three groups: gang members, violent men and nonviolent men for the analysis.
Both violent men and gang members were found to be younger than nonviolent men, more likely to have been born in the UK, and more likely to be unemployed, according to the study.
Gang members and violent men were significantly more likely to suffer from a mental disorder and access psychiatric services than non-violent men, the researchers report. The exception was depression, which was significantly less common among gang members and violent men.
Violent ruminative thinking, violent victimization, and fear of further victimization were significantly higher in gang members and believed to account for high levels of psychosis and anxiety disorders in gang members, the study found.
“No research has previously investigated whether gang violence is related to psychiatric illness, other than substance misuse, or if it places a burden on mental health services,” said Professor Jeremy Coid, Ph.D., Director of Forensic Psychiatry Research Unit at Queen Mary, and lead author of the paper.
“Here we have shown unprecedented levels among this group, identifying a complex public health problem at the intersection of violence, substance misuse, and mental health problems among young men.”
He noted that it was probable that high levels of anxiety disorder and psychosis among gang members could be explained by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is the most frequent psychiatric outcome of exposure to violence.
“However, this could only partly explain the high prevalence of psychosis, which warrants further investigation,” he said.
The researchers also suggest that the higher rate of attempted suicide attempts by gang members may be associated with other psychiatric illness, but could also “correspond with the notion that impulsive violence may be directed both outwardly and inwardly.”
“With street gangs becoming increasingly evident in UK cities, membership should be routinely assessed in young men presenting to health care services with psychiatric illness in urban areas with high levels of gang activity,” Coid added.
The researchers estimate that about 1 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 34 are members of gangs. The level rises to 8.6 percent in the London borough of Hackney, where one in five black men reported gang membership, they report.
“A potential limitation of the study is that survey participants were aged 18 to 34 and the average age for gang membership is 15,” Coid added, “so gang members in this study should be considered ‘core’ gang members who have not stopped in early adulthood. We need further longitudinal studies to see if our findings are due to factors specific to this group.”
The research was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Source: Queen Mary, University of London