Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

2P Trauma, Psychological Distress, and Suicide Risk Among Female Gang Members

Friday, January 13, 2012
Independence F - I (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Julia M. Noveske, MA, Doctoral Fellow, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH
Mark I. Singer, PhD, Professor, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH
Mark S. Fleisher, PhD, Senior Research Associate, Kent State University, Kent, OH
Daniel Flannery, PhD, Professor, Kent State University, Kent, OH
Jenni Bartholomew, MSW, Doctoral Student, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH
Background and Purpose: Previous ethnographic research on gang-involved women has revealed patterns of violence, victimization, and self-defeating behavior within social contexts characterized by poverty, family disorganization, and parental neglect (e.g., Fleisher, 1998). This research suggests that these women are at high risk for psychosocial problems associated with trauma. Although previous studies have demonstrated increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases, violence exposure, and substance use among female gang members (Wingwood et al., 2002), little is known about the psychological symptomology of this population. This study uses standardized psychosocial and psychometric data to develop clinical profiles of adolescent and young adult women gang members.

Methods: Instruments included: the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI); the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ); the Exposure to Violence Scales: Adult Version (EVS); and the Short Drug Abuse Screening Test (S-SDAST). These tests were administered to 49 female gang members ranging in age from 18 to 45, with an average age of 24.1 (6.3). About half of the women were members of the Gangster Disciples (51.0%). The remaining women were Vice Lords (20.4%), Black P. Stones (16.4%), Black Disciples (6.1%), Black Gangsters (4.0%), and Crips (2.0%). This sample was drawn from a larger study of women in gangs in Champaign, Illinois which utilized a respondent-driven sample (OJJDP grant number: 2000-JR-VX-0006).

Results: Analysis of EVS and CTQ data found high levels of violence exposure and childhood physical neglect. More than two-thirds (69.4%) reported exposure to severe violence (being a victim of or witness to a shooting or knife attack); 36.7% experienced lifetime sexual assault; 16.3% reported recent sexual assault; and 98.0% experienced childhood physical neglect. Respondents had elevated psychological symptom distress as measured the BSI: 44.9% had clinically elevated Global Severity Index scores; 30.6% had clinical depression scores; and 44.9% had clinical levels of hostility. Almost half (44.9%) had clinically elevated substance use. Finally, there was evidence of suicide risk among many of the women, with 46.9% reporting feelings of hopelessness and 18.1% reporting thoughts of ending their life. Of the 9 women who reported suicidal ideation, 7 had clinically elevated substance use and 7 had clinically elevated hostility. Six (12%) evidenced very high risk of suicide, reporting suicidal ideation, clinical hostility, and clinical substance use.

Conclusions and Implications: This study reveals a pattern of neglect, violence exposure, sexual victimization, substance use, and psychosocial distress, including suicidal ideation, among gang women. Findings suggested that 12% of the sample were at extremely high suicide risk. Our findings imply that mainstream approaches to gang related problems, which often focus on deterrence/enforcement and do not consider high levels of psychological pathology, suicide risk, and substance addiction, are inadequate. Interventions for women gang populations should integrate assessment and therapy for psychological distress, suicide risk, and substance use and should consider the vicarious traumatization of practitioners as a potential barrier to successful intervention. Prevention efforts should focus on strengthening families to prevent violence, sexual victimization, and abuse/neglect. Limitations of this study include the nonrandom nature of the sample and the lack of a comparison group.