Adolescent Mental Health and Gang Violence

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It is not uncommon to hear about gang violence in many areas throughout the United States, including rural and urban areas. According to Dr. Sarah Kelly, a Registered Nurse at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, “Almost 30% of cities with more than 2,500 people have reported problems with gangs, and more than 80% of cities with more than 50,000 people have reported these problems.” Dr. Kelly and her colleagues sought to discover the link of exposure to gang violence, its effects on adolescents’ mental health, and their increased interest in illegal activities. According to Kelly, “there is a lack of research on adolescents’ exposure to gang violence and the effects it can have on their mental health.”

Exposure to gang violence or being an active gang member can have multiple effects on one’s mental health. In a recent study published in Issues in Mental Health Nursing, Kelly used multiple methods to collect data from adolescents, their parents, and their community caregivers, to determine the effects of being exposed to gang violence. Interviews were conducted with the adolescents asking about their direct or indirect exposure to gang violence and how it had affected their lives. Following that, adolescents were asked to complete a Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSCC), which included subscales for anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, sexual concerns, dissociation, and anger. The study found a positive correlation between anger and depression and anger and dissociation for the adolescents. This suggests that anger can manifest itself in a variety of ways such as the victims or witnesses of gang violence expressing their anger as depression or utilizing a safeguard for themselves by becoming dissociated and not remembering the traumatic event.

In addition to the checklist that the adolescents filled out, the parents and caregivers filled out the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), which asked about the behavior and mental health of their adolescent(s) including things such as rule-breaking, aggression, anger, anxiety, depression, dissociation, and posttraumatic stress disorder . They found that the parents and/or caregivers stated that their children were experiencing either a mixture of many of the listed behaviors on the CBCL or just a couple.

Finally, they asked community center employees, teachers, and administrators to complete the Teacher Report Form (TRF), which asked about the same behaviors as the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) . They found a negative correlation between dissociative symptoms on the TRF and externalizing symptoms on the CBCL which is an interesting finding since dissociation is usually correlated with amnesia or hysteria. Dissociation is also a common coping mechanism for victims of traumatic events, which is why it is interesting that it would be correlated with symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

The current study shows that exposure to gang violence can have numerous side effects on adolescents, which creates a growing concern for the youth that live in gang occupied neighborhoods. Many adolescents cannot avoid the dangerous situations in these neighborhoods, which is causing drastic effects on their lives while living in these dangerous cities. Also, many of the youth that live in these cities cannot afford to move, which makes them more prone to gang violence. According to Kelly, “Adolescents deserve to live in a supportive nurturing environment and we need to help them achieve that vision.”

By Timothy Zietz
Tim is a Psychology and Human Biology Major with a minor in Chemistry.  He plans on graduating in 2015 and attending medical school to obtain his MD and PhD and specializing in neurosurgery.

Youth Violence: Normal Rebellion, Mental Illness, or Both?

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Most would argue that youth violence is becoming a growing concern in today’s society. A recent study by Jennifer Wareham and Denise Paquette, published in the Criminal Justice and Behavior Journal, explored whether or not youth are just being defiant, or if they also may suffer from some sort of mental health problem.

Wareham and Paquette hypothesized that mental health problems, those listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), would be linked to violence frequency among adolescents. Wareham indicated, “The co-morbidity of mental health problems and antisocial behavior (e.g., delinquency) presents a serious challenge for treatment and prevention initiatives.  We hope that our work contributes to the growing body of research that is helping to elucidate the link between mental health problems and delinquency and inform public policy.” They also hypothesized that mental health problems would intensify the effects of other risks on violent behavior.

Wareham and Paquette did find that mental health problems were associated with violence in adolescents.  Wareham states, “This effect remains significant even when controlling for a variety of individual demographic characteristics, prior violent offending, peer problems, family problems, and neighborhood conditions.”  With this link, it is important that those teens that exhibit oppositional defiant behaviors see a professional who can help address these concerns, possibly preventing violent behaviors from becoming serious matters.

The DSM is the resource that psychologists and other mental health professionals use to help diagnose mental illnesses. Though the DSM-5 was released in May of 2013, the DSM-IV was used for this research.

It is normal and healthy for adolescents to rebel against their parents a times, but most will not complete violent acts due to wanting to be “independent.”  Wareham states, “Certainly, not all youth demonstrating oppositional defiant problems will become violent, but, on average, such youth are at risk of demonstrating future violent behaviors.  This means it is important to direct youths experiencing such problems to professional persons and resources to adequately address the underlying issues associated with oppositional defiance and aggressive behaviors.” Parents and other professionals should keep a close eye on this to ensure that adolescents are getting the proper help they need when dealing with mental health issues.

By KaNisha Flemming
KaNisha is a double major in Psychology and Human Development who plans on graduating in Spring of 2014. She then plans on attending graduate school to earn a Masters in Counseling and hopes to work in the prison system or with juvenile delinquents.

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Dr. Jennifer Wareham is an Associate Professor in the department of Criminal Justice at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.  She possesses a doctorate degree in criminology from the University of South Florida.  She can be reached at jwareham@wayne.edu

Dr. Denise Paquette Boots is an Associate Professor in the program in Criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, TX.  She possesses a doctorate degree in criminology from the University of South Florida.  She can be reached at deniseboots@utdallas.edu

Does Experiencing Violence Lead to Violent Behavior?

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While psychologists cannot prove that viewing violent media causes violent behavior, there is a body of evidence that suggests a relationship between viewing violent media and aggressive behaviors.  This research, while important, does not cover the multitude of ways that someone can witness violence. There are thousands of children who witness or are victims of violence in their home or neighborhood.  In fact, a 2009 study of over 4,500 adolescents in Pediatrics revealed that over 60% had been exposed to violence within the past year as either a victim or a witness. These circumstances can contribute to the cycle in which the victim of violence becomes the producer of violence.  More recently, Dr. Eva Kimonis examined the relationship between anger, exposure to violence, and the likelihood of perpetrating violent crimes.

The 2011 study, in Child and Youth Care, explored a sample of male juvenile offenders between 14 and 17 years old to examine a possible link between anger and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and its relation to violence perpetration.  Participants’ level of violence exposure, anger, PTSD symptomology, and violence perpetration both prior to and while inside the facility was assessed. Anger was found to mediate violence perpetration but PTSD symptomology did not show this same correlation.

According to Dr. Kimonis, “violence exposure can result in problematic outcomes” such as PTSD and anger.  Her research focused on juvenile offenders because “they have extremely high rates of violence exposure.”  She also states that this exposure, if severe enough, can lead to changes in the brain in areas that respond to threats and stressors.  As a result, children that are exposed to large amounts of violence respond stronger and in more aggressive ways than children who are not exposed to violence. 

Dr. Kimonis’ research has shown that anger can, at least partially, provide a link between being a victim of violence and committing violent acts. It is important to realize that this study was correlational, so we cannot conclude that being a victim or witnessing victimization causes any one person to victimize others. However, it is important to note that we can try to identify those individuals who are at risk for becoming violent offenders or those who are already violent offenders. 

Dr. Kimonis’ research seeks to “understand why adolescents act violently. Gaining this knowledge can be helpful to developing prevention and treatment programs to intervene with violent youth or youth at risk for violence.”  Early intervention in young children may be able to save countless lives from violent crimes.  If problem behaviors are addressed early, interventions can be implemented before more severe problem behaviors arise.

By Sarah Bohman
Sarah is a senior with a major in Psychology and a minor in Human Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  After graduation, she plans on attending graduate school to earn a PhD in Clinical Psychology after graduating.

The Influence of the Family on Anger, Aggression, and Violence

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It’s long been known that children pick up their emotional expression styles from their family. However, recent research has identified, more specifically, how certain family environments predict violent behavior in adolescence. The study, published in 2010 in the Turkish journal KURAM VE UYGULAMADA EGITIM BILIMLERI (Theory and Practice of Educational Sciences), explored the families of nonviolent and violent adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 and found several factors that differentiated between the two groups. Specifically, the families of violent adolescents had more difficulty managing family conflict and experienced more problems in communication. With regard to anger, the families of violent adolescents experienced more anger and expressed their anger in more maladaptive ways.

The study’s lead author, Raşit AVCI, said he was drawn toward the study because “the tendency towards violence is on increase among adolescents both at national and international levels in today’s world…. A study which would be carried out on adolescent violent behavior would have some contributions to our conception of adolescents and help us control the risk factors.”

Dr. AVCI believes the take home message of the study is that “professionals working with children and adolescents need to understand the context in which the children and adolescents live…. Moreover, the professionals working with normal children can carry out works on protective factors (problem solving, communication) for family members and children and in this way, they can help to impart pro-social behaviors to the children.”

As for what this means to parents, Dr. AVCI says, “it is of great importance for family members to gain awareness of the types of behaviors directed to others because family members are always watching each other and learning from each other.”

By Ryan C. Martin