Craig Pinkney: ‘Young people caught up in gang violence are traumatised’

The youth worker and criminologist says policymakers need to prioritise the mental health of those involved in street crime

With gun and knife crimes, including fatalities, hitting the headlines with disturbing regularity and affecting many young people around the country, Craig Pinkney has found himself in demand. The Birmingham-based youth worker and criminologist, who has been immersed in efforts to understand and tackle serious youth violence and gangs since he was a teenager, says there needs to be a rethink about how the issue is addressed.

In the West Midlands, police were dealing with 14 knife offences every day last year, according to freedom of information figures, while official statistics showed a worrying increase in gun crimes. Pinkney believes that the susceptibility of young people to serious street violence warrants a “public health” approach. “You can say, yes, poverty is the reason … but for some groups of people it’s more than poverty. It’s that when I step out of my house I might die … And these are real fears that exist within the community.”

As a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, Pinkney is researching the role of social media in perpetuating street violence among youngsters. He grew up in the Hockley area of Birmingham and went into community work and then research and training around youth engagement and violence in order to understand why some young people ended up on that trajectory. From a family interested in “social justice and social action” it was in his DNA, he says, to try to resolve some of the problems he saw around him. “I started seeing a lot of young people going to jail – many friends – and really wanted to understand why that was.”

He says policymakers have often been looking in the wrong places for solutions. They focus on criminality and stereotyping particular groups instead of looking at the complex slew of social and emotional issues.

“Locking them up and throwing away the key isn’t going to solve the problem. We need to ask two key questions: what are we missing and what are we not understanding?”

A crucial aspect of young people’s lives that often gets overlooked is mental health, Pinkney argues. The emotional and psychological trauma experienced by young people caught up in street violence, and the anxiety and fear this unleashes, must be given greater priority.

A few months ago Pinkney gave a talk at a Child Centre for Mental Health event where, he says, there was a genuine understanding among mental health professionals of the psychological and emotional roots of youth street violence. “Any time I talk to people in the realm of mental health they understand what I’m talking about,” he says. “They know the kids have gone through multiple traumas and have never dealt with [it].” But policymakers must grasp this too, he says, especially when youth mental health provision is in crisis.

From the outside we might think of territories and postcode-based gang actions as “madness”, he says. “We might wonder, ‘Why would you want to stab someone for looking at you?’” However, he stresses: “We’re not looking at the trauma, but [at their] behaviour as rational.”

What would a genuine public health approach look like? Professionals in schools who can deliver “therapeutic interventions that help young people with their fear and their anxiety,” Pinkney says. “And then a step further. If there were people from the community who escorted young people on buses [home from school], I guarantee there would be more young people fearing and [thinking] less that they have to carry a knife.”

While there have been moves to ascribe at least some of the blame for gang activity and youth violence to drill music, Pinkney says it is “exacerbating” problems that already exist on the ground, along with the role played by social media platforms in young people’s lives.

While he welcomes the creation of a violence reduction unit in the West Midlands, Pinkney stresses the importance of involving the community at every stage. He says: “I believe that a public health approach needs to be community-led and academically driven. Not using the community, but working with them in all interventions and services designed to respond to the issues faced by young people. It shouldn’t be done in a tokenistic way.”

Curriculum vitae

Age: 33.

Lives: Birmingham.

Family: Five children.

Education: Cardinal Newman Roman Catholic school, Birmingham; De Montfort University, (BA , youth and community development); Birmingham City University (criminology MA , PGCE, currently studying social media, gangs and violence in the West Midlands for a social sciences PhD).

Career: January 2020-present; founder and director, Solve: The Centre for Youth Violence and Conflict; 2013-20: lecturer, criminology, University College Birmingham; 2012-18; UK lead, EU Gangs Project; 2009-12: youth worker, Birmingham city council.

Interests: Travelling, weightlifting, working with young people.


Mary O'Hara

The GuardianTramp

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