GangYoung men who are members of street gangs are more likely to experience mental ill health, including antisocial personality disorders and anxiety, new research has revealed.

Researchers from Queen Mary, University of London, surveyed 108 gang members and found that 85.8% has an antisocial personality disorders, 58.9% had an anxiety disorder and a quarter screened positive for psychosis.

Violent ruminative thinking, violent victimisation and fear of further victimisation were believed to account for high levels of psychosis and anxiety disorder in gang members.

Street gangs are concentrated in inner urban areas characterised by socioeconomic deprivation, high crime rates and multiple social problems. The authors report that about 1% of 18- to 34-year-old men in Britain are gang members. This rises to 8.6% in the London borough of Hackney, where 1 in 5 black men reported gang membership.

Other findings included:

• Two-thirds were alcohol dependent
• More than half (57.4%) were drug dependent
• 34.2% had attempted suicide.

Professor Jeremy Coid, director of forensic psychiatry research unit at Queen Mary and lead author of the paper said: “No research has previously investigated whether gang violence is related to psychiatric illness, other than substance misuse, or if it places a burden on mental health services.

“Here we have shown unprecedented levels among this group, identifying a complex public health problem at the intersection of violence, substance misuse and mental health problems among young men.

“It is probable that, among gang members, high levels of anxiety disorder and psychosis were explained by post-traumatic stress disorder, the most frequent psychiatric outcome of exposure to violence. However, this could only partly explain the high prevalence of psychosis, which warrants further investigation.

“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 authors suggest that the higher rate of suicide attempts among gang members may be associated with other psychiatric illness, but could also correspond with the notion that impulsive violence may be directed outwardly and inwardly.

Professor Coid added: “A potential limitation of the study is that survey participants were aged 18 to 34 and the average age for gang membership is 15. So gang members in this study should be considered ‘core’ gang members who have not stopped in early adulthood. We need further longitudinal studies to see if our findings are due to factors specific to this group.”

The research is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.