Could Being a Gang Member Lead to Depression?

By User:SurCholo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Kids who decide to join a gang are more likely to wind up becoming depressed and suicidal and these mental health conditions only worsen after joining, according to a new study co-authored by a Michigan State University criminologist.

The Study

Gang membership is directly associated with depression, as well as a 67 percent increase in thoughts of suicide and a 104 percent increase in attempted suicide.

Chris Melde, MSU associate professor of criminal justice states, “Youth who join a gang are much more likely to have mental health issues and then being in the gang actually makes it worse. It doesn’t act as an antidepressant. And some people may be seeking that out- a sense of well-being or purpose.”

There are an estimated 850,000 gang members in America right now and gangs remain a very real and “stubbornly persistent” problem, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Many youngsters, particularly poor and minority youth, join a gang to escape from hardship and possibly because of the promise of money, protection, and status or to provide them with a sense of belonging they don’t get at home, school or anywhere else.

But Melde has studied youth gangs for years and had not found any evidence to prove gangs are beneficial. For example, the rate of drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violent victimization increases exponentially after a kid joins a gang.
In the latest study, Melde and Adam Waktins, from Bowling Green State University reviewed national survey data from more than 11,000 middle and high-school aged children. Youth who joined a gang had a much higher level of depression and suicidal thoughts than those who didn’t join a gang.

Furthermore, gang memberships made these underlying issues much worse. Melde said, “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. 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.”

Gang Alternative Programs

A recent report done by Advancement Project discovered six major risk factors that add to gang involvement in urban areas and these include; lack of jobs for youth, poverty and social isolation, domestic violence, early academic failure, lack of parental guidance, and negative peer networks.
These risk factors alone increase the chances a young person has of joining a gang, but it is not a guarantee. Rather than allowing a child to fall into the clutches of a violent gang, parents, teachers, and community members can make a difference in the life of a youngster.

Through bringing about awareness at an early age, setting clear expectations within a household, getting to know the peers a child is associating with and speaking to them about peer pressures and ways to avoid it, the chances they will fall into a gang are greatly decreased.


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