By Sarah Frisby-Osman and Jane L. Wood (2020) 

Youth Justice, 20(1-2) 93–112 

Summary of article by Nina Maxwell

What question does this study focus on? 

This article focuses on the question of whether young people involved with gangs have higher levels of affective, behavioural, and mental health needs than young people who are not involved with gangs. Both groups were compared in relation to their levels of (1) anxiety and depression, (2) emotional distress and proneness to guilt, (3) conduct problems, (4) exposure to violence as victims, and (5) socio-cognitive processes, including moral disengagement and rumination (where anger-provoking thoughts are constantly replayed).  

How did they study it? 

The authors used a cross-sectional, between-participants design. Young people were invited to take part from three coeducational schools in areas of England that have identified as having high levels of gang activity by the UK government. The schools included one mainstream secondary school, one further education college and one Pupil Referral Unit. Ninety-one young people took part in the study with a mean age of 14.93. Of these, 56 (62%) young people were identified as nongang-involved, 32 (35%) as gang-involved and 3 (3%) were unspecified based on findings from a robust screening tool.  Their affective, behavioural, and mental health needs were measured using a range of scales including the Beck Depression Inventory, the Moral Disengagement Scale and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.   

What did they find? 

Young people involved in gangs were more likely than those not involved with gangs to report anxiety and depression, conduct problems, exposure to violence as victims, moral disengagement and rumination. There was no difference between the two groups regarding emotional distress and proneness to guilt. To explore which level of need was more likely to be associated with gang involvement, discriminant function analysis were undertaken. This analysis found that conduct problems, moral disengagement and angry rumination were more likely to account for gang involvement followed by anxiety, depression and violence exposure. Emotional distress and guilt-proneness were not related to gang involvement.  

What are the implications? 

This study highlights the need to consider the psychological and socio-cognitive predictors of gang involvement within early intervention and prevention strategies. Specifically, findings highlighted the need to target antisocial and problem behaviours as these were the biggest predictor of gang membership. Early intervention and prevention strategies should also address youth anxiety and depression as feelings of low self-esteem or perceived lack of opportunity were associated with the perception that gang membership was a way of getting their basic needs met. Finally, early intervention and prevention strategies should address the emotional impact of exposure to violence and the socio-cognitive processes of moral disengagement and rumination.  

Review written by

Nina Maxwell