At the Peer Action Collective we have learned a lot about the impact that youth violence can have on young people’s health and wellbeing. Research conducted in 2022 by Peer Researchers found that mental health was a priority for young people across England and Wales. From being hypervigilant in areas where young people feel unsafe, to feeling a sense of inevitability about violence in their local areas, young people shared with Peer Researchers the ways that growing up with the threat of youth violence affected their wellbeing.
Being involved in violence as a young person can be traumatic and have lasting mental health effects.
- Ethan*, a 22-year-old male from Bradford, described the impact that being involved in gang violence has impacted his mental health as an adult:
- “I’ve gone home and had nightmares and night terrors, you know, I’ve had like sleep paralysis from these kinds of experiences. I believe it’s contributed a lot to like my mental health over the years without a doubt. It’s really a lifelong experience that you never forget. You know I can see it as clearly now from when I was 13 as it was back then, and these thoughts don’t leave your mind.”
Having to manage the threat of violence in their communities can be exhausting, with young people feeling the need to be hyper vigilant and modify their behaviours.
- Young people talked about having to consider the possibility of violence when making day-to-day decisions. The YEF Children, Violence and Vulnerability Report 2023 reinforces that young people change their behaviour due to fear of violence, with around half of the young people surveyed noting that violence, or fear of violence has affected them in some way. This included 26% of young people expressing a tendency to isolate themselves more because of this fear. Minority ethnic children were more likely to feel these effects, with 55% of Asian, 54% of Black and 53% of mixed ethnicity children reporting impacts on their day-to-day lives, compared to 45% of white children. Drew from Devon said on the issue:
- “I think if you’re like feeling unsafe in your local area, sometimes people don’t want to go to school, go outside at all, but if they don’t want to be around friends, that can cause really poor mental health…a fear of being attacked, isolation” (Devon focus group).
Not being supported with mental health problems could lead to a heightened risk of involvement in violence.
- Young people reflected on how people who might become frustrated with their own mental health issues were more likely to feel they have nothing to lose and participate in more violence. Shamza, 18, from Bradford stated:
- “You’re much more likely to as a young person to have some sort of mental health issues, and if you’re not getting the support that you need it’s much harder for you to kind of get out of that mindset and to actually do something to improve your life and not get involved in crime.”
Feelings of inevitability or hopelessness about youth violence is a reality for young people with experience of violence.
- For young people who had first-hand experience of violence, or lived in high violence areas, violence felt like an unavoidable reality. The feelings of desensitisation or hopelessness that this can result in is exacerbated by young people not seeing how this might change, or feeling like they have the power to change this.
- “I feel that [youth violence] is an experience that everyone has had, is having, or will have. And yeah, I really feel like it’s inevitable I’ll be real” (Aidan, 19, M, London).
While speaking through the impacts, young people also raised some of the things they would like to see change to better support young people’s mental health and reduce the risk of violence.
- Getting the right support, at the right time, is key.
Many young people attributed violence to poor mental health, speaking of the need for early intervention and support. Imogen, 23, from Bradford felt addressing this would be key to reducing youth violence:
“People getting the support that they need from a young age to say I have self-worth; I am more than this, I don’t want to hurt people.”
- Young people need to feel taken seriously when they express a need for mental health support.
Across England and Wales, young people talked about the challenges of finding and accessing appropriate support for mental health. Young people described feeling that their mental health was not taken seriously, culminating in frustration and resentment. Many described situations where their mental health was ignored or minimised by key adults in their life and explained that this could lead to increased volatility and lashing out at their peers.
“It was like it was just an immediate dismissal. Like the first like thing that happened was I went in and just kind of spoke to her about like my life and stuff like that and I thought oh ok. This is good. You know getting stuff off my chest and then after that it was just nothing, so it was like oh what I’ve just poured my heart out for nothing like…” (Poppy, F, 19, Merseyside)
- Young people need access to safe spaces where they do not need to be on alert.
Young people explained that the fear of violence can leave them exhausted, often searching for the place where they can relax and let their guard down. For many young people this was either home or a local youth club.
“It’s always good to have that place where you don’t have to be out on the streets or out on the road … you can just be calm down here [the local youth club]” (Rafael, 16, M, London)
Throughout PAC research, young people spoke about the need for understanding, support and space to help them cope with the affects that violence can have on their lives. Despite feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness, young people are acting on the issues that matter to them. We encourage others to think about how they can help young people access appropriate support and empower them to work for change.
Funded by the Youth Endowment Fund, the #iwill Fund (a joint investment between The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) and the Co-op, the PAC is here to support young people to take the lead.
*All names changed for anonymity.
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