Lots of researchers have studied gang members. Dr. Sarah Kelly, assistant professor of nursing, is working toward an intervention program for kids not in gangs but who are psychologically scarred by gang violence.
Kelly’s research grew out of her PhD dissertation at The University of Kentucky. Kelly, who earned her MSN at UNCG in 2004, worked with gang members in a trauma step-down unit at Duke University Medical Center. She built on that experience, opting to study the effects of gang violence on non-gang members for her dissertation at Kentucky.
At Duke, she says, “we had a large population in the trauma unit who were gang members, most of whom had been shot or stabbed. Occasionally we would get people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wanted to know more about how gang violence affects the community.”
Her advisors at Kentucky “weren’t keen on me interviewing gang members,” she says, “so they said why not change your focus? Why not look at adolescents and youth outside the gangs and how this affects them?”
So Kelly launched a pilot study in the Louisville, Ky. area. She quickly found out after speaking with teens and pre-teens that kids were indeed fearful, and that fear was impacting their mental health. One boy, about 16 years old, told her he wouldn’t be surprised if he got shot when he walked out his door.
Kelly expanded her study when she came to UNCG in 2008 thanks to grants from UNCG’s Sigma Theta Tau nursing honor society chapter and a faculty research grant. In Greensboro, she interviewed 20 teens, ages 12-16, at three separate community centers. She wanted to know how they viewed gangs and gang members, and how gang activity affected them.
What did she learn from her studies?
- Exposure to violence affects kids differently. Not every child will have the same reaction. Some respond with anxiety disorders, others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, some become depressed.
- Having two stable parents, financial security and support from peers are major factors in mediating the effects of gang violence.
- Kids join gangs for several reasons. Many are seeking respect, some want protection, others want a sense of connectedness they don’t get at home, some enjoy the excitement gangs offer.
Talking to kids openly about their experiences is essential to keeping them safe, Kelly says. “Kids don’t have a voice unless someone speaks up for them. They’re our future. If they don’t feel safe, secure and able to socialize, it’s problematic. It’s wrong.”
By Michelle Hines