Tiasha Sen: Neglecting mental health in young people: Gang Involvement

by Tiasha Sen, a student at Nonsuch High School

Coronavirus lockdowns are having detrimental effects on mental health in young people. Mental health researchers have warned that depriving young people of social interaction and education will not only lead to a deterioration of mental health but may also result in behavioural and cognitive problems later in life. 

Adolescence (between  the ages of 11 and 25 years) is known to be a vulnerable stage in personal development. On top of major hormonal changes and puberty, this is the point at which people want to spend more time with their friends and be exposed to the life outside their homes. It is also the period in their life when they are most susceptible to mental health problems. Those with no history of mental illness are developing serious psychological problems for the first time as a result of lockdown, due to stress, isolation, insecurity, and collapsing relationships.

However, the effects of this pandemic are even worse for people that have previously experienced trauma. In a study by the mental health charity YoungMinds, 2111 people aged under 25, who had a history of mental health needs, were asked how the pandemic had affected them. Of the 83% that felt their mental health had worsened, 32% said that they felt ‘much worse’, and the other 51% felt ‘a bit worse’. Amidst these respondents, who had previously been receiving support from the school counsellors, charities and helplines, 26% stated they no longer had access to external support, as they couldn’t attend peer support groups in school, or didn’t have resources for online sessions.

More support needs to be readily available for those struggling with their mental health, especially now, as adolescents are becoming vulnerable to manipulation and being pushed into what seems like the “only way out” – gang membership. Children are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection by UK gangs, only to realise that they’ve spiralled into a bottomless pit with no way to escape. The tight leash that these “county lines” gangs have on their runners forces them to live in constant fear and regret, when in reality it was our job to warn them about these situations in the first place.

As a society we have let these young people down. One of them is Carly, who was a victim of gang manipulation at only 15 years old. She became swept up in in the world of violence, drugs and sudden sexual activity: aspects that no teenager should be forced to endure. Years later, when she escaped with the help of Social Services, she opened up to childline: “My body and mind was breaking down. From the innocence that I had, my life was self-destructing day by day. He became so controlling, he had control of where I went, who I spoke to. Whatever he said, I did.”

Helping someone in her situation may seem impossible from the lens of a person that grew up free from the havoc of gangs; however this isn’t the case – you don’t have to be familiar with gangs to offer support. Just ensuring adolescents know that there are safe spaces and people to talk to is an immense step in itself, as the idea that gang recruitment is their only hope can be slowly eradicated. Unfortunately, gang activity and involvement has been stigmatised over the years, resulting in it seeming like an extreme to many schools, which is why they opt not to discuss it during school hours. However, during the lockdown some gangs expanded their county lines operations and seized rival areas, escalating tensions with competitors who obeyed the government’s stay home measures and suspended trading. It may seem as though we are outside the reach of these dangers, but that’s not a risk we should be willing to take at the cost of the young people of our society.

We need to spread awareness about any and all extremes, especially at a time when events have exceeded our own control. It is imperative that this is actioned through assemblies and presentations during the school day, to shine a light on the fact that gang involvement is an imminent threat, and not an exaggeration. With this knowledge, teachers will then be able to support their students’ mental health to minimise chances of gang involvement, by incorporating health and wellbeing lessons across the curriculum to build up children’s self-esteem, support emotional welfare and provide them with effective coping strategies. We know that whole school approaches to mental health and suicide prevention are effective.

It’s indisputable that mental health has always been the underdog to other – more physical – issues; however the time to act on this is long overdue. Looking after one’s mental health can prevent abuse, crime, and psychological trauma from gang recruitment, so why is it taking so long to spread this knowledge and fight the exploitation of mental vulnerability? Whilst billions have been spent on tacking Covid-19 just £500 million was recently allocated to mental health by the UK government. The gulf between physical and mental health has never been so wide.

Picture credit: Craig Davis.