Methods: Data come from the 2016 Washington Healthy Youth Survey (HYS), a state-representative sample of students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. The analysis sample consisted of 2,770 youth who self-identified as gang-involved. The sample was racially/ethnically diverse, 60% male, and on average 14.84 (SD=1.65) years old. Latent Class Analysis (LCA) using indicators of substance type, frequency of use, and access sources identified classes of gang-involved youth relative to their substance use patterns. Using social-ecological theory as a guiding framework (Merrin et al., 2015), ANOVA and chi-square tests examined group mean and proportional differences across an array of indicators linked to adolescent substance use.
Results: Based on model fit (AIC, BIC), interpretation, and parsimony, a four-class solution was selected, identifying: Non-users (19%); Past users of illicit drugs (8%); Non-illicit experimenters with low access (40%); and Regular multi-substance users with high access (33%). Social-ecological risks across the individual, family, peer, school and community domains were consistently highest for the Regular use group. Regular users were less likely to live with two parents in their own home, and more likely to experience poverty, poor mental health, engage in physical fights, truancy and worse grades, feel that school is unsafe, and have lower perceptions of substance use as harmful. Regular users also reported higher parental, peer, and neighbor acceptance of substance use. Non-illicit experimenters had elevated, but slightly lower risk than Regular users. Non-users and Past users were similarly lower in their social-ecological risks. Past users had similar or lower risk than Non-users, but greater consequences associated with use. Groups varied little by demographic characteristics.
Conclusions and Implications: Findings provide valuable insight into the importance of social ecologies for varied substance use among gang-involved youth, highlighting the need for service approaches that are sensitive to context. While a large proportion of the sample were active and/or frequent users, many gang-involved youth were not users, underscoring the need for less assumptive models (Sanders, 2012). Additionally, gang-involved youth with increasingly serious patterns of use had worsening ecological risk across domains. Addressing disparities in social and health outcomes will require moving beyond traditional approaches. Research and practice efforts that are sensitive to gang-specific differences in social ecologies of risk will be discussed.