Online Program

Early childhood trauma among adolescent gang members

Monday, November 4, 2013

Katherine Quinn, PhD, Center for AIDS Intervention Research, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI
Meridith Mueller, MPH, Center for AIDS Intervention Research, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI
Julia Dickson-Gomez, PhD, Center for AIDS Intervention Research, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI
Background/Objectives: Research indicates that as youth mental health risk factors accumulate, the probability of gang affiliation increases, yet the effect of gang membership on the mental health of adolescents and young adults has been significantly under-studied. This study serves to further explore early childhood trauma among gang members and understand how such experiences effect decisions to join gangs and the consequences of not receiving mental health intervention.

Methods: Data was collected from 43 in-depth interviews with adolescent gang members, ages 14 to 19, of four Milwaukee gangs. Male and female, African American and Latino participants were recruited directly through research staff or via referral of contacts by study participants. Interviews were coded for key themes and patterns using MAXQDA.

Results: Results indicate that gang members experience a number of traumatic events in early life including exposure to violence and drug and alcohol abuse, family conflict and parental absence, and early sexual experiences. Adolescent gang members often cite these reasons, primarily focusing on family conflict and parental absence, as motivators for joining, and remaining, in gangs. Gang membership, in turn, leads to additional health and mental health risks and increased exposure to additional traumas.

Conclusions: Gang members are rarely seen as victims, or in need of mental health services. Rather, they are often depicted as deviant criminals, and are treated as such without regard to adverse childhood events, trauma, or mental health. As a result, we lack appropriate mental health services and trauma informed care targeted toward gang members.

Learning Areas:

Public health or related research

Learning Objectives:
Explain how childhood trauma led to the decision to join gangs for adolescent gang members, Explain the exposure to trauma faced by adolescents as members of gangs, Discuss the cumulative health risks that adolescent gang members are exposed to through traumatic events.

Keyword(s): Mental Health, Adolescents

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I am a doctoral student in Public and Community Health at the Medical College of Wisconsin and participated in the qualitative data analysis of this project.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.