The physcholigical impact of gang violence

Tuesday, 18 July, 2017

Violent crime can lead to terrible physical injuries and death. But it also has a significant psychological impact, which is often forgotten. People injured through violence are six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than people injured in accidents, according to our research. They are three times more likely to suffer from depression.

But it can be hard to engage with the toughened young people admitted to hospital with injuries caused by street violence. One young man, who had been stabbed when a fist fight escalated, told me it was no big deal. The very fact that he remembered the event, he believed, was proof of this. "If it was real trauma," he reasoned, "my mind would have blocked it".

He considered his assailants to be a wannabe gang: five teenagers on his estate in London only a little younger than him. There was a lot of bravado in his words, but with time and compassionate listening, it was eventually possible to get beyond the bluster. Later he admitted:
I was scared for my life, not scared of them. The amount of blood that was gushing down - I was gonna die.

Violent attacks include knife injuries, kicks and punches, being beaten with a weapon, the use of cars as weapons, and, increasingly, guns. Many youngsters now carry weapons for self-protection, without being explicitly involved in gangs.
London's police force has just expanded its specialist knife crime squad after 11 people died from being stabbed in just two weeks.
Violence, deprivation and mental health problems operate in a vicious cycle. For example, substance abuse can lead to violence, the psychological trauma of violence leads to worse mental health, and the consequent difficulties with education and work lead to more deprivation. In turn, the odds of further mental health problems, substance abuse and violence increase. This has knock on effects for families, communities and society. It is a cycle which urgently needs to be interrupted.

Gang-related or otherwise, violence affects certain groups more than others. It is more likely to feature in the lives of young men, especially those from ethnic minority groups, and those who live in deprived urban areas like Tower Hamlets, East London, where we conducted our research and which is one of the most deprived areas in England. In nearby Hackney, a similarly deprived and ethnically mixed neighbourhood, 9% of men report being in a gang, compared with 1% in the rest of the country.

People injured through violence often have a history of mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and they are likely to live in relative poverty. A violent injury makes you more vulnerable to future mental health problems, and repeated exposure to violence increases the risk of PTSD.

PTSD is still best known as a psychological problem affecting soldiers and veterans. In fact, it can affect anyone who has experienced, or witnessed, traumatic events such as serious injury, violence, sexual violence or death. It is characterised by disturbing flashbacks, feeling alienated, the need to avoid any reminders of the event, and "hyperarousal" - symptoms like being easily startled or feeling your heart hammering in your chest.

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