Young people with poor mental health are more at risk of being drawn into gangs. Being in a gang can also damage a young person’s mental health through being exposed to violence and trauma, among other things.
Child gang members tend to have higher rates of mental health problems, and are more likely to have self-harmed, than other vulnerable children who aren’t in gangs.
While it’s typically young people in their teens who commit serious offences within or outside a gang, the age at which children start to become involved or show signs of being at risk is often much younger.
There are many reasons why a young person might be drawn towards being in a gang. A few reasons may include:
- difficulties with attachments
- unstable family environments
- social and economic disadvantage
- too little adult supervision
- having a sibling or relative involved in gang crime or behaviour.
Spotting the signs
The push and pull factors that might lead to a young person getting involved with a gang often relate to mental wellbeing. A few signs that school staff can look out for include:
- feeling isolated or socially excluded, and looking for a source of support
- feeling fearful and anxious, and seeking protection (could be linked to child abuse, domestic violence or fearing the neighbourhood in which they live)
- having low self-esteem
- having special educational needs and disabilities
- being overly impulsive which may be the result of conditions including attention deficit overactivity disorder (ADHD) and severe and persistent behavioural problems (also known as conduct disorders).
- having poor school engagement or being excluded (children excluded from school by age 12 are 4 times more likely to be in prison by age 24).
Poor mental health and gang-affiliation
Being in a gang can negatively impact children’s mental health in the following ways:
- being exposed to violence and other trauma can damage mental health, particularly if they are repeatedly exposed. Sexual violence poses a risk for females especially
- through having to suppress feeling fearful and anxious
- taking substances like alcohol and drugs can increase young people’s risks of mental health problems, this is particularly the case for cannabis use. This may be being used to increase confidence and numb emotional stress
- being involved in a gang during early adolescence can impact on psychological development.
There are also vulnerable children who are being groomed and exploited by gangs, but who would not identify as gang members. This is rare (especially at primary school age) but is being identified as an increasing problem in some local areas in the UK. These children are at significant risk of harm, which may lead to coercion, emotional abuse, sexual violence, school absence, criminal offences and physical assaults.
Children with severe and persistent behavioural problems (or conduct problems) are at a greater risk of getting involved, and staying, in gangs.
Children with conduct problems tend to present with repetitive and persistent antisocial, aggressive and defiant behaviour. A diagnosis of conduct disorder relies on severe behavioural problems and symptoms being present for over six months.
Boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionality affected. These children may also struggle with sleep or eating problems. Suicide or self-harm is also a risk.
Children as young as two or three can have persistent behavioural problems – this is often how a child communicates that something is wrong or is a sign that they may be in distress. Such behavioural problems can have a big impact on a child’s life outcomes, especially if they emerge before secondary school years.
Exposure to violence
Long-term exposure to violence is linked to a range of psychological problems including depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms (talks of nightmares, is unusually jumpy or startled, acting aggressively, among other things).
When trauma symptoms multiply and become extreme children can present with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a type of anxiety disorder that can develop after being exposed to an extremely violent or traumatic event. Children who have PTSD may re-live their experiences, struggle to sleep or concentrate, be irritable and get angry. Such traumatic experiences can lead to children feeling out of control, helpless and worried about their safety.
What schools can do
Primary schools have an important role to play when it comes to early intervention to help identify vulnerable children, and to also prevent violence and gang-involvement. Here are a few things that schools can do:
- Incorporate health and wellbeing lessons across the curriculum to build children’s self-esteem, support emotional wellbeing and provide them with effective coping strategies. A few good examples of lessons include:
- Use whole-school programmes to help improve children’s social and emotional skills, and strengthen their understanding of risk and how to stay safe. A few good examples of programmes include:
Look out for changes in children’s behaviour and to indicators of distress and need, such as a lack of engagement with school and teachers, and challenging or risk-taking behaviours. Staff should also spot if a child suddenly has unexplained money, expensive clothing and possessions in school, or who seem to have multiple phones, or changes phones regularly. If you are concerned about a child, you should discuss with the school designated safeguarding lead who will then advise on and support a referral to Children’s Services.
Look at what Early Support Services are available in the local area of your school to support at-risk children. Develop strategies and teach programmes that help vulnerable children to belong and build stronger relationships – this could be through peer mentoring or linking young people with opportunities and activities to divert them away from gang involvement. When children have suspected mental health difficulties, make sure the child is referred as early as possible to school or community counselling, or to mental health services.
Community and ethos
Work with peers, families and communities to support children who are at risk of getting into a gang, or who are currently involved. One way is to involve parents early on, and get their support as you discuss what the best options are for moving forward. It’s also important to create a school ethos where children feel safe and secure and where there are clear expectations and boundaries.
Concerned about a child?
If you are worried that a child is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.