Gang membership tied to mental health issues


Researchers at Michigan State University unraveled some alarming elements affecting mental health of young adolescents who join gangs. Emerging research discovered that kids in middle school and high school who decide to join gangs are more likely to be depressed and suicidal.

“Youth who join a gang are much more likely to have mental health issues, and being in the gang actually makes it worse,” said Dr. Chris Melde, associate professor of criminal justice at the Michigan State University. “It doesn’t act as an antidepressant. And some people may be seeking that out — a sense of well-being or purpose.”

Many young adolescents, especially from poor and minority populations, join gangs in hopes of money, security, status or a sense of belonging/purpose that they are unable to attain at home, school or elsewhere. Yet, Melde’s research has failed to highlight any such significant benefits.

In fact, rates of substance abuse and violent experiences were observed to have increased after the kids joined gangs. Those who joined gangs were susceptible to greater levels of depression alongside a 67 percent increase in suicidal thoughts and 104 percent raise in suicide attempts.

Gang membership, violence and psychiatric morbidity

Gang members engage in several risky activities that are linked to psychiatric morbidity, especially those associated with violence.

Published in the American Journal of Psychiatry 2013, the cross-sectional survey assessed 4,664 men, aged 18 to 34 years, from areas with high levels of violence and gang activities in the U.K. Participants finished questionnaires encompassing gang membership, violence, utilization of mental health services and psychiatric diagnoses based upon standardized screening instruments.

Gang members depicted a much higher prevalence of mental disorders and engagement of mental health services compared to nonviolent men. However, a lower prevalence was noticed in regards to depression.

Furthermore, violent thinking, violent discrimination and fear of more victimization attributed toward high levels of psychosis and anxiety disorders in gang members. Relations to antisocial personality disorder, substance abuse and suicidal tendencies were associated with elements other than violence.

Long-lasting repercussions

Adults who had been members of gangs in their adolescence had poorer outcomes on a variety of measures, including physical and mental health, than those who’d never been in a gang.

A group of 800 fifth graders were followed and assessed for 23 years. Ultimately, associations of 173 students were identified with a gang and were matched by 173 controls that were not linked with any gang. Both groups of kids were quite similar in their comparable alcohol and drug use, living environments, socioeconomic statuses and academic performance.

However, in comparison to the controls, once these adolescents reached the ages of 27 to 33, those who had joined gangs were found to be:

  • Three times more likely to commit a crime
  • Facing almost twice the incarceration rates
  • Susceptible to three times the risk of substance abuse
  • Twice more likely to confirm poorer health

Experiencing a 50 percent drop rate at high school graduation

Gangs and associated violence represent a complex public health problem affecting mental health and living standards. As per the Justice Department, gangs remain to be an unrelenting problem in the U.S., with an estimated 850,000 members.

About the author

Sana Ahmed is a  journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. 

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