I see the daily affects and impacts of gangs and exploitation with the young people I work with and the biggest issue…mental health.
I have many examples of this but today I want to talk about Deon.
Deon, when I first became aware of him, was not involved with gangs. He was friends with those associated with gangs, but he was a kid that loved to play football and that is where you would find him…kicking ball. He had a cheeky face and a sweat smile. I remember him trying to make me laugh with knock knock jokes but not being able to make it to the punch line because he would start cracking up half way through the joke. He had a temper. Always did. He would hit things when he was angry but that was about it. Then he started hanging around with some young people from the local area. I didn’t see Deon on a regular basis but knew who he was hanging around with. I didn’t see Deon for about 6 months, not for any reason other than we were never in the same place at the same time. Then I was informed that he had become involved with gangs.
One day some of the boys I was working with started talking about this boy that they had seen fight. Said he was crazy and that no one should fight him. One of my boys said “Miss, honestly this kid is crazy, he is like a dog. The (Local gang) just keep him sitting with them silent, like a dog, and then if people do something, they set Deon on you and he attacks you”. The boys said that they give him free weed all day long to be on call for them. Other stuff too. Deon? I asked what this boy looked like. I asked what school. It couldn’t be the same kid…could it
So, I went to look for Deon. I looked and looked but could not find him. Hardly ever in school so I had to take this too the streets. I was told he was outside a local McDonalds, so I went…just like that. I saw a crowd of boys there. Some I knew…some I didn’t. But couldn’t see Deon. So, I asked them. They showed me. He was now 14 years and as I walked over, I could see it was him, but he looked different and he now towerd above me. He looked much older than his years and “Friends” were much older than him. I walked straight over to him and said hello. He avoided eye contact and moved in a way that was different to the others. He was smoking a spliff and he looked liked he had been smoking something all day. I made him look at me. His eyes were so red. He looked like he was on another planet. I said I was calling the police (which I did). When I said that he started getting angry. Started almost growling. He started punching the wall. Hard. People started to back off but I just stood there, telling him that he needed to come with me.
From that day to this I have only ever seen him truly smile a handful of times and have never seen him laugh. Never heard him sing aloud. Never seen him act his age.
I remember the first time we spoke on a deep level. We were talking about how he would keep himself safe in the community. I say we were talking…I was talking, and he was just nodding. He said that he was smoking massive amounts of weed and that he received this for free. I asked him many times why he got it for free and he would just shrug his shoulders. Then one day he said “Miss, do you know what a Hitter is”. I slowed my thoughts down and looked at him. Really looked at him. I said that I knew what a hitter was to me but maybe it was something else to him. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He was visibly sweating and, for the first time in a long time, he took his hood down and asked for water.. He said that a hitter is someone the Olders grooms to put a hit on someone. To badly hurt someone. To kill someone. You learn how to stab someone, in certain places, to kill them. That is your only job. The gang keep you in weed and stuff for free until they need you to do the hit. We both sat there for a moment. His eyes looking everywhere but at me. I asked him if he was a hitter. He shook his head. I asked if he was in danger. He shook his head, now looking down at his hands that were twisting and turning. He then just got up and walked out the room. I saw Deon a few times after that and we talked about consequences and actions and general stuff. He pulled away from me further. Sometimes we would sit inssilence when we had our meetings for 20 mins at a time. Not an uncomfortable silence. A silence where Deon had the chance to say it. If he wanted. Help me.
He never did. The smoking became worse. It was rare that you would not see him stoned. People started making jokes about how much he was smoking and that there was always a cloud of smoke around him.
Once, only once, he spoke about some of his fears. He told me that he had a “Friend” who was being made to do stuff for a gang. It went like this:
M: What kind of stuff Deon?
D: You know what kind of stuff miss, why do you always act like you don’t know.
M: You could mean lots of things, I don’t want to put words into your mouth.
D: He hurts people for them.
M: Well he should ask for help. He should tell someone.
D: If he tells anyone then he will go Pen. He will get nicked for what he has done.
M: But he can’t just keep hurting people
D: If he doesn’t then they will hurt him. And his family.
M: you don’t have to be scared Deon. I can help you
D: I am beyond help Miss. Go save someone else.
There were rumours all over the place about this boy. Police knew. Social services knew. Everyone knew. But they were just rumours. No evidence.
Deon chased a top boy with a gun.
Deon had his own line.
Deon had beaten up 3 men.
Deon had stabbed someone and had loads of money for it.
People were chatting but…nothing…. I had nothing.
I didn’t see Deon for some time. He went away…or…at least I did not know where he was. Then he returned to me, just like that. I remember the day he returned. I would recognise his walk almost anywhere. I walked over to say high. He turned around and looked at me straight in the eye. You know when you have been standing in the sun and suddenly a big rain cloud appears and makes everything dark and gloomy and you feel suddenly cold. That’s what it felt like when he looked me in the eye.
A few days later I found him rocking on a wall. I slowly walked over and asked what was wrong. He didn’t respond for a bit and then said that he was dying. That he couldn’t breath and he needed to leave…Now. I tried to talk to him, but he ended up running. A few days later there was an argument involving Deon. I had stopped many fights and arguments with him but this time…this time was different. When I took him away from the situation, where he had just spoke quietly whilst an adult had belittled him, I asked if he was ok. He said no. He said that the could not breath and was dying. He said it as calmly as you just read the words in your head. But his eyes were wild and wide. I explained that I thought he was having a panic attack and to trust me. I held his big, scarred hand and spoke soothing words. After a while the tears came. Silent, running down his face. He said that he was sorry. I said what for. He said for all the things he had done. I asked him what he had done. He just cried and cried never saying a word. He asked me if I believe in God. I didn’t answer. He was just repeating over and over that he was sorry. He said that the was now smoking lots of weed and started the day with a bong. I asked him why. He said to forget. I asked what he wanted to forget. He looked at me, and for a moment I saw the glimmer of the boy I had known a long time ago, and then he was gone. The eyes clouded over with black again. He yanked his hand away from me.
He lost loads of weight. Like…half the size he used to be. Some of the others made fun at his trousers one day because he was now pulling them in so tight with a belt that it looked ridiculous. He came over to me, calmly, and said what should he do about his trousers. I said get new ones. He just looked at me like it had never occurred to him, and on Monday he had new trousers on.
Big bad Deon. The boy they all run from…is now the boy that is scared and paranoid of his own shadow. If there is any kind of confrontation he will put on the verbal show, but once away from the situation he cries and shakes. He says that he has nightmares every night. He told me that every day starts the same…wake up…. panic attack…have a bath…. panic attack….have a bong…
He tells no one anything. Not his mum, not the pals he has left, not me…no one. No one, as far as I know, really knows what he has done or been through. He just lives what ever it is over and over in his mind. Driving himself crazy hour after hour.
Did I try and get the right services involved you ask? Did I get him the right support? Of course, I tried. I made referral to the services that are available, and he wouldn’t/couldn’t engage. Will he be ok? What do you think?
The problem is, how can he hide from his own thoughts and memories? He can’t. He is a shadow of his former self and that scares me. But it scares him more.
He is not the only one. I see it day in day out. The impact of gangs and exploitation on mental health.
And I feel helpless. How do we help the ones that are both perpetrator and victim at the same time?