A scheme looking to integrate gang members into society after tackling their mental health problems is having some impressive results, reports Jackie Cosh
● Project name: Integrate
● Aims and objectives: to work with gang members, or those at risk of membership, to help prevent reoffending, treat mental health difficulties and help young people back into employment, education or training.
● Number of service users: Between 14- 30 young people over a two year period
● Funding: £163,000
“You mental health people expect us to talk to you but we don’t know you and neither do our friends. My cousin is dead because he spoke to one of you and someone thought he was talking to an undercover cop.”
This comment from a young person in North London shows how difficult it is to engage with gangs. Many services consider them to be “the untouchables” – the group that is impossible to reach.
However, in London interest has increased in the work of MAC-UK (Music and Change), a community-based mental health charity working with young people from deprived areas across North London. The charity has not only successfully engaged this group but has seen some impressive results – more than 75% of the young people who have participated in the programme are now employed or in work experience, 25% are receiving medical care and three have founded their own programme working with schools.
Dr Charlie Alcock, the CEO of MAC-UK, is a clinical psychologist who did her training with young offenders in two of the most notorious and dangerous gangs in the US. She realised that one in three young people who offend have an unmet mental health need at the time of offence.
Alcock devised the “Integrate” model specifically to work in the context of gangs – so instead of individuals being referred, the charity works with one antisocial group so that they change collectively. Following success in the US Alcock brought the model to the UK in 2008.
“The person-to-person method works extremely well. All have a group which works for them – the “gang” explains Dr Alcock. “Their expectations of services is so bad that if someone said they must go they won’t. But if they set it up they are more committed”.
Alcock started by asking Camden Council and the NHS in North London to provide a list of young people who were considered “unaccessible”. Working in pairs, and with the support of other agencies such as the police, the charity’s clinical psychologists went to where the young people hung out- stairwells, basketball pitches, benches, fish and chip shops etc.
“It takes time and the model has that time built in for up to six months,” Alcock says. “It’s about being present regularly for short periods of time. We get them to trust and to know us.”
In doing so the psychologists deliver “street therapy” – providing psychological support and therapy “wherever, whatever, whoever”. Young people tell them where they would like to meet, for how long and how often and can be seen as frequently or infrequently as their needs dictate.
A multi-disciplinary team, including youth workers, gang specialists, social workers, young offender workers as well as clinical psychologists, then also engage with up to 30 young people (up to age 30) to help them lead a range of activities such as cooking, gym, football, music. The young people choose what to attend but it means they engage on a one-on-one basis with a member of the MAC-UK team daily.
Alcock points out that the activity can be anything at all and can be something professionals might usually consider totally irrelevant.
“It is more about them having an activity they have invested in. It becomes an opportunity to learn life skills in practice, for example how to negotiate without hitting, how to raise money, how to budget.”
Staff are also on hand to support and assist the young people to find employment- liaising with work experience employers and preparing the young people.
Three of the young people who have worked with the charity have now started up MINIMAC, taking music and DJ-ing into schools and pupils referral units, speaking with the pupils and encouraging them to take a more positive path.
An evaluation is also being conducted by the Mental Health Foundation with offending rates being tracked through the Police National Offending Database (which all the young people have agreed to), as well as tracking mental health needs and take-up of employment, training and education.
Lisa Clarke, head of integrated services at Camden Council, has been working with MAC-UK for the past year and is starting a two-year project to transition MAC-UK’s work and embed it in statutory services.
“We are saying that we would like to give it a go and do things differently to see if it works. But until we reach the end of the project we can’t tell. From my perspective I run a multi-agency team so understand the way of working. We have commitment from everyone round the table. The fact that a mixture of services has got involved means something in itself. All think something different needs to happen. All are committed to giving it a go.”
Interest has also come from the government and Dr Alcock has had several meetings with the Home Office and with the secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith.
“Health is missing from the current youth offending model. We need to recognise this and push to bring both together” she points out. She is also very clear that she doesn’t want the model to be dependent on MAC-UK staff or personalities but has to be adaptable by the community that owns it. “My aim is to not be here in 10 years’ time.”
‘We can connect with kids,’ says Elson Jakupi, 25, pictured
While Elson doesn’t want to elaborate on how much he was involved in gangs, he does admit that the life he was leading before MAC-UK was not a very positive one.
“I used to sit around with my friends, smoking weed, backing each other up and sometimes getting in to fights” he says.
Four years ago Dr Charlie Alcock started visiting the youth club where Elson and his friends would go to play pool and hang out. “We didn’t know who she was at first. Some people disrespected her; some didn’t. I never did. I’m not like that. I just got in with the wrong crowd,” he recalls.
With Alcock’s help Elson and two of his friends set up “MINIMAC”. After being trained in mental health awareness they now run DJ and lyric writing sessions in local schools as well as a pupil referral unit.
Many of the pupils who attend have been excluded or are on the verge of exclusion and come from a similar background to Elson. “The kids enjoy the lessons” he say. “We connect with them. Sometimes they ask our advice. Sometimes they want to write negative things but we explain why they shouldn’t. They understand because they know where we came from.
“I love music and I love what I do. It’s not full-time so I have other part-time jobs at the weekend. My family is proud and so am I. Sometimes I see friends I haven’t seen for a while and when I tell them I am a music teacher they are really surprised.
“Life has become different. I am more mature and I am hoping that we can do so something so that those who would have gone down our road won’t. We can connect with kids. We know what they are going through. It feels good.”
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