Psychologists meet gangs on the streets in bid to halt violence
Exclusive: New strategy sees therapists try to prevent stabbings by tackling past traumas
02 March, 2018 — By William McLennan
Dr Richard Grove and Dr Jeff Halperin
WHEN NHS psychologist Richard Grove saw the young men under his care running towards a kitchen to arm themselves during an attack by a rival gang, he felt a surprising sense of accomplishment.
“They all started looking for knives in the kitchen of the room we were in, which we took as a huge success because it meant they were not carrying their own knives,” he said.
Dr Grove has spent the past year-and-a-half leading a team of healthcare professionals who take skills honed on the therapist’s couch onto the street in a novel attempt to stem rising levels of youth violence.
As authorities search for solutions after one of the most violent nights in Camden in recent years, in which two young men were stabbed to death and a third was left in hospital with knife wounds, the gang psychologists have developed a model in one corner of the borough that could be rolled out across London, given sufficient funding and political will. Behind the scenes, the team has focused its pioneering approach on one of the most notorious gangs in London, known as Easy Cash.
Based in the EC1 postcode area, it is responsible for drug-dealing operations across the country, police say, as well as regular spates of stabbings and countless phone snatches. Many of those working in the criminal justice system now accept that the majority of young men caught up in violence and gang crime have been exposed to a toxic cocktail of domestic violence, trauma and poor parenting in their early years.
But mental health professionals feel this side of the story is largely going untold.
Describing the genesis of the project, funded by the NHS and Camden Council, Jeff Halperin, lead psychologist at Camden and Islington NHS Trust, said: “The role of these mental health difficulties in attracting young people to this lifestyle was being neglected. The law enforcement approach was there by necessity, but there was another component that was getting missed out.” He said that against a backdrop of low self-esteem and self-confidence, fuelled by school exclusion and a lack of opportunities, the gang provided its members with “a sense of belonging and purpose”.
“It is like a surrogate family,” he added. There were clear mental health problems that could be addressed, not least around trauma, but persuading these young men to engage with mainstream psychological services would be impossible.
“A lot of the young people don’t even like going to GPs,” Dr Halperin said. So they developed a treatment model in which they would “take traditional therapeutic approaches from the hospital out into the community”.
In April 2016, Dr Grove set about “meeting these young people where they’re at” for the first time. Equipped with information from the police gangs unit, a team of therapists and youth workers arrived at a cemetery in Bloomsbury where members of Easy Cash had been spotted. Day after day they returned to St George’s Gardens and told the gang that they were there to listen. “It takes quite a lot of work and persistence and endurance from the team, because it’s not easy work,”
Dr Halperin said. “They’re not always friendly or they’re dismissive or they tell you to eff off.” Their aim was first to develop a relationship built on trust and structure. Then, if they broke through the barriers of hostility and aggression, try to help them “recognise their own emotions”.
Underpinning this was the psychological principle of “attachment theory”, Dr Halperin said, which states that building a strong connection to a parent, or other “caregiver”, in early life is a key developmental process, allowing children to learn to understand their emotions and to read others’. At one point in the early stages of the project the gang asked if they could be bought pizza and, after a team meeting to discuss the pros and cons, the psychologists agreed.
“We will say that we’ll do something and we will deliver and follow through on it. We will be there with pizza even if they don’t show up,” Dr Grove said. The psychologists do not shy away from the fact that some of the gang’s activities are “seriously bad” and accept that the public may struggle to express empathy for them.
But, Dr Grove said, they approach them with the “assumption that the majority, if not every single one”, do not want to be in a gang. “Given all the opportunities that exist in society, nobody would choose to have no qualifications, have a very hand-to-mouth existence, take huge risks to earn money and constantly be looking over their shoulder,” he said. “No one in their right mind would chose that.”
As the winter nights drew in, they agreed to take the sessions indoors and together selected a church hall safely within the gang’s turf. Despite having lost around 15 to the prison system, new faces regularly turn up in the company of long-standing members.
They have, at last count, 108 young people with whom they have had some form of meaningful contact, ranging from a brief discussion to hours of one-to-one therapy. Among the success stories are young men who moved away from the gang to take up legitimate employment, with one on the cusp of beginning an apprenticeship.
Looking back to that day last summer when a rival gang member launched an attack in the middle of one of their sessions,
Dr Grove recalls how he was forced to phone police for the safety of his staff. Involving the authorities did not go down well. “This particular young person, after I called police, he was shouting that he was going to stab me,” he said.
The young man was “very high on the police’s profile”, Dr Grove said, and so volatile that he even scared other gang members. Fast forward five months and he is sitting down at an NHS clinic, with Dr Grove at his side in support, about to embark on a long-running course of treatment and therapy.
“The change in that young person is mammoth,” Dr Grove said.