Our specialist practitioner Christine, based at the Serious Case Advisory Unit within London probation, tells us about her work with gang-affiliated young offenders.

My background as a clinical psychologist and systemic psychotherapist informs my approach to working with individuals who have experienced trauma.  Within the National Probation Service, I work across London with offenders aged approximately 18-25 years who are affiliated with gangs and have mental health needs. I assess individuals directly, taking them on for therapeutic work and connecting them to local services where appropriate. I also support probation officers to take offenders’ psychological needs into consideration, to improve engagement and reduce reoffending. This involves consulting on cases remotely when someone is still in prison or not ready to engage.

The link between poor mental health, social issues and gangs is strong. Young people are vulnerable to gang involvement in areas where there is high social inequality. Those feeling isolated due to mental health issues and family dysfunction can be drawn to gangs because they offer support, a sense of belonging and social identity. Due to gang ties spanning – often several – generations, involvement is ingrained in some families which can make it seem inevitable for young people.  Others join out of fear of victimisation if they don’t.

On average young people join gangs when they are just 12-13 years old, and over-exposure to violence from this young age can disrupt their emotional development. The need to hide any fear or anxiety in the face of such violence – to avoid the repercussions of showing any weakness – impacts further on their mental health.  Many individuals experience post-traumatic stress symptoms, and self-medicate through alcohol and substance misuse which also exacerbate their mental health issues. 

The link between poor mental health, social issues and gangs is strong

Often, young people involved with gangs come from marginalised ethnic communities where mental health stigma is high, and they therefore mistrust services. Often they’ve been in the youth justice system for years but haven’t engaged with support. By young adulthood, they may be more ready to receive help because their symptoms are more debilitating by this stage. By the time they see me, many of my clients have been stabbed and shot at several times, and have witnessed friends being murdered.

I have a high caseload of people wanting to see me. People don’t have to talk to me which I think offers a sense of control in an otherwise restrictive environment. I emphasise that I am primarily concerned with their wellbeing and that although I work closely with probation, I am employed by a separate organisation. I also offer flexibility, seeing individuals in whichever London borough they feel most safe in.

It’s important to explore what may have led a young person to look for a family substitute in a gang. It helps to understand the function it serves for them and to challenge the assumption that they are inherently ‘bad’ and incapable of change. Asking “What’s happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” helps someone to understand their behaviour. Taking this non-judgemental stance and validating someone’s experiences is instrumental to engagement.

I use a trauma-informed approach. In practical terms this means: being predictable, being on time, providing a safe space – offering someone a consistent and stabilising structure to rebuild themselves from. Understanding behaviour in the context of trauma can be an effective way of managing it for both probation staff and young offenders.  For example – the reason someone is getting into frequent fights might be because they are hypervigilant to violence and attack first.

Cutting gang ties is a complicated and multi-layered process but it can and does happen

I use a resilience-based framework. This channels the belief that someone can manage difficult experiences and bounce back from adversity. It involves helping young people to recognise their strengths and skills and to harness them to cope better. Trauma experiences can cause your sense of self to become fragmented. You can forget who you are. It’s about connecting people to more positive times in their lives so that they can try to put the pieces back together again.

Overall, I aim to help young offenders to develop the tools to manage and reduce their anxiety, mood and trauma symptoms.

Cutting gang ties is a complicated and multi-layered process but it can and does happen. It’s more likely to happen if someone feels better – their trauma symptoms reduce, they can think more clearly, make better decisions and have better relationships. Sometimes there isn’t a long-term goal. Someone’s symptoms are so debilitating, the aim is to simply reduce their distress for a moment.

Offering someone a positive relationship experience – something they may never have had – helps foster someone’s belief in their capabilities. It can be used to model other relationships, improving personal connections, helping engagement with probation and reducing likelihood of using mental health services in future.