Study Links Gang Membership and Depression
Gang membership is associated with greater levels of depression, as well as a 67% increase in suicidal thoughts and a 104% increase in suicide attempts.
"Youth who join a gang are much more likely to have mental health issues, and then being in the gang actually makes it worse," says Chris Melde, an MSU associate professor of criminal justice. "It doesn't act as an antidepressant. And some people may be seeking that out — a sense of well-being or purpose."
With an estimated 850,000 members in the United States, gangs remain a "stubbornly persistent" problem, according to the US Department of Justice. Many youth, particularly poor and minority youth, join gangs to escape hardship for the promise of money, protection, status, or a sense of belonging they're not getting at home, school, or elsewhere.
But Melde has studied youth gangs for years and found no discernible benefits. For example, the rate of substance abuse and violent victimization only increase after youths join gangs.
In the latest study, Melde and Adam Watkins from Bowling Green State University studied national survey data of more than 11,000 middle- and high-school students. Youth who joined gangs had significantly higher levels of depression and suicidal thoughts than those who didn't join gangs. Further, membership in gangs made these underlying problems much worse.
"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," Melde says. "Kids join gangs for reasons, but when we try to find the benefits, whether it's for protection, a sense of worth, whatever, we're finding it actually makes an already significant problem in their lives even worse."
The study was published online in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.