'Unprecedented Levels' of Mental Illness Among Gang Members

Young men in gangs are disproportionately prone to anxiety disorders, psychosis.
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Young gang recruits in Guatemala. (PHOTO: UNITED STATES AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT)

Young gang recruits in Guatemala. (PHOTO: UNITED STATES AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT)

The New York Times Magazine this past weekend had a great piece about the persistent problem of gang violence in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s changing tactics against it. The headline says it all: “What Does It Take to Stop Crips and Bloods From Killing Each Other?”

Reporter John Burtin describes experiments that the L.A.P.D. is undertaking to collaborate closely with community members to try to create a safer environment with less collateral damage. This in stark contrast to the department’s 1980s-era tactic of responding to the gang problem with “overwhelming force.” Burtin also notes that this is an interesting experiment because many of those community members have close ties to the gangs, or are former gang members themselves. It’s a complex problem that requires nuanced law enforcement methods.

“When we talk about crime, we tend to talk about victims and offenders, innocence and guilt, prey and predator,” Burtin writes. “Gang violence clouds and warps this logic: victims and victimizers are often the same people, and neither side has any reason to talk to the police.”

Do gangs appeal to kids who are at risk of mental and emotional instability? Or is the psychological damage done during the time spent running with their gangs?

The Times article doesn’t say so, but one of the greatest challenges facing any kind of police-gang cooperative efforts may be the unpredictability and instability of the gang members themselves—and not just when drugs are involved. In fact, a new study in the July issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry has found “unprecedented levels of psychiatric illnesss,” like various anxiety disorders and psychosis, among gang members.

Common problems among young men in gangs (the study only looked at males) included “violent ruminative thinking, violent victimization and fear of further victimization.” It makes sense, in an intuitive way: If you live a life where you’re both perpetrating violence and constantly on guard against retaliation, it’s got to be hard to keep calm and keep perspective. It also makes sense that this is a lifestyle that would attract people with volatile tendencies.

The study, led by Jeremy Coid, director of forensic psychiatry research at Queen Mary, University of London, didn’t just focus on kids. In fact, the men in the survey were aged 18 to 34, older than the age at which most would have probably joined the gang. So these particular men all show a long-term gang affiliation—and a long-term dedication to the lifestyle attached to it.

Previous research Coid had studied in the U.K. had not effectively separated the substance-abuse factor from the troubled lives of these young men. The substance-abuse factor is a big one: Coid found that two-thirds of the gang members he surveyed were dependent on alcohol, and more than half were addicted to drugs. But the problem is larger than that: a fourth of the group had some kind of a diagnosis of psychosis, and about a third of the group had attempted suicide. (Interestingly, while anger and anxiety were extremely prevalent, depression was actually less common among gang members than it was in non-gang-member men in the study.)

So the question remains: Do gangs appeal to certain types of kids who are already at risk of mental and emotional instability, either because they promise a family-like inclusivity or because they offer an outlet for violent, risk-taking itches? Or, rather, is the psychological damage done during the time the young men spend running with their gangs?

Earlier this month I wrote about research based on political unrest in Kenya that concluded that even short-term exposure to violence can have a long-lasting impact on the children who witness it. More than a year after the short-lived violent upheaval, Kenyan children who were exposed to violence were exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, like aggressive behavior, bullying, and problems focusing on schoolwork. Could PTSD be to blame for this pattern of psychiatric problems, too?

Coid said that the violence/PTSD connection is a too-simplistic one: “this could only partly explain the high prevalence of psychosis, which warrants further investigation.”

One theory about the suicide-attempt factor that Coid and his colleagues do suggest, however, is that gang life can encourage giving in to sudden, impulsive violence. This violence is most often directed outward, but perhaps these young men may be giving in to sudden impulses to do themselves harm, as well.

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