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You have to be crazy to to join a gang. You have to get your ass kicked to join up, and you have to drive large quantities of someone else's cash, drugs, and weapons around in stolen cars.
I lived in downtown San Francisco when I first moved away from home, where Norteños and Sureños would shoot each other occasionally. On sunny weekends you could see zoot-suit clad funeral-goers emptying 40s on the sidewalk of Dolores Street. Yes, there was a vibrant gang culture in San Francisco, and I especially didn't want to fuck with any of it.
A new study from England's National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) shows unprecedented levels of mental disabilities for gang members. Of 4,664 British men ages 18 through 34 surveyed, 108 were gang members, expressing these statistical findings:
- 85.8 percent had an antisocial personality disorder;
- Two-thirds were alcohol dependent;
- 25.1 percent screened positive for psychosis;
- More than half (57.4 percent) were drug dependent;
- Around a third (34.2 percent) had attempted suicide; and
- More than half (58.9 percent) had an anxiety disorder.
"No research has previously investigated whether gang violence is related to psychiatric illness, other than substance misuse," explained professor Jeremy Coid, lead author on the study. "With street gangs becoming increasingly evident in UK cities, membership should be routinely assessed in young men presenting to healthcare services with psychiatric illness in urban areas with high levels of gang activity."
The researchers aren't certain why a third of these British gang members have tried to kill themselves, but believe suicidal behavior could be linked to other psychiatric illnesses or impulsive acts of violence directed inwards.
Gang members are also quite young, Coid said. "The average age for gang membership is 15," a demographic which wasn't included in the study of 18 to 34 year olds. So do gang members become mentally ill as a result membership? Often extorted and pressured to express unfaltering loyalty, the study can't say much about the psychiatric foundations of matriculating gang members.
Many of us feel the urge to tempt fate every once in a while. Most of my friends would casually call that "being an extrovert." Certainly, when you've stolen your first car, delivered your first brick of coke, or killed your first enemy, it's safe to assume you're using some social lubricant, or some hard street drugs. And once you've accomplished any of these things with your gang brothers, you're, as they say, bound for life, and exits can become narrow and fatal.
"Gang members in this study should be considered 'core' gang members who have not stopped in early adulthood," said Coid. So for youngsters wrapped into gang life, there's yet another reason to get out.