Adolescent gang members in the U.S. experience much higher rates of depression and suicidality than the general population, according to a new study that appears in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior. While those who join gangs are typically seen as highly problematic individuals, this research at least sheds some light on what motivates them to do so, suggesting that gang membership is often seen as a coping strategy by youngsters suffering from psychological disorders.
Moreover, the study authors assert that involvement in street gangs rarely has the desired effect, and appears to exacerbate rather than alleviate mental suffering.
To conduct the study, researchers examined data collected as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a survey of around 15,000 middle school and high school students conducted over two years in the mid-1990s. As part of the survey, participants were asked a number of questions designed to evaluate their levels of depression, suicidality, and several other makers of mental health.
Students were also asked about their involvement in gangs, with roughly 5 percent claiming to have been initiated into one by the end of the two-year period. Analysing the data, the study authors found that those who went on to join gangs during this timeframe were roughly twice as likely to have experienced suicidal thoughts than those who did not join gangs.
Furthermore, after joining these gangs, members’ suicidal thoughts increased by a further 67 percent, leading to a 104 percent rise in actual suicide attempts.
Commenting on this data, study co-author Chris Melde explained that “if you think of gang membership as a coping mechanism – trying to cope with the hand you've been dealt in life – it doesn't work.” Looking at previous research into what motivates young people to join gangs, he claims that there is strong evidence that they often do so as an attempt to achieve “a sense of well-being or purpose,” normally because of low self-esteem or a feeling of vulnerability.
However, given the violence and brutality that kids are often exposed to when they join gangs, Melde says that membership tends to have the exact opposite effect, and “actually makes an already significant problem in their lives even worse.”