Initiation and membership into a gang may be just about the least healthy thing a young girl can do for herself, in both a physical and psychological sense. According to a new study, teen girls face increased risks for HIV, substance abuse, violence, trauma, and depression.

These consequences are all weighed on a balance, unfortunately. Gangs may be breeding grounds for illicit and dangerous activity, but they also afford incoming girls a sense of closeness they may lack in their lives. Oftentimes, the threat of teen pregnancy or fatal illness is worth the cost of not becoming socially unglued — a choice that seldom ends well for the gang members but seems to stand as their only option, where before they had none.

FBI data shows roughly 1.4 million gang members call the U.S. home, organizing into some 33,000 violent street gangs. Related data from the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment report shows about 48 percent of violent crime in most jurisdictions can be traced back to someone in a gang. The latest research seeks to turn this violence inward, namely, to the violence gang members face themselves and learn how they got there.

"Adolescents who have strained relationships with positive family and community members and have displaced housing may find a sense of belonging with gangs,” said Dexter Voisin, professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, in a statement. "It may be that the gangs satisfy the need for social connections and survival for these teens.”

Voisin and his colleagues were interested in learning which ailments, conditions, and diseases cropped up most often among teen girls, between 13 and 17, who had been incarcerated at a short-term facility. They issued a questionnaire to 188 girls. The answers that came back showed girls faced issues of low self-esteem, emotional problems, housing instability, and low parental monitoring.

By and large, here was a group of girls who didn’t like themselves and who had no one to convince them they should. And so, the cumulative effect of these risk factors led to most girls joining a gang. What they lacked at home they discovered through a gang. Fellow gang members became their family, the broken down buildings they once lived in became their troubled past.

However, what boosts they saw socially or psychologically were all but offset by the risks they faced once inside the gang, the researchers found. “There are certain behaviors and norms within some gangs that are associated with increased social and health risk factors for their members,” Voisin said, such as frequent unprotected sex, regular drug and alcohol use, and courting boyfriends who were also part of a gang.

To combat the transition from poverty to gang life, Voisin and his team argue the best strategies involve targeting the girls’ desire to make that transition. For instance, it involves teaching them how to deal with their stress, low self-esteem, and other emotional challenges on their own or with a professional. Child welfare and other youth service providers should target these teens so they can learn the risks they face by joining a gang, Voisin says.

This way, girls can learn gang leaders aren’t their parents. Fellow members aren’t their sisters. And unfortunately, to the great dismay of a trusting member, the gang might not always have their best interest at heart.

Source: Voisin D, King K, Diclemente R, Carry M. Correlates of gang involvement and health-related factors among African American females with a detention history. Child and Youth Services Review. 2014.