The edge of the knife

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A landmark report into knife crime in London shows how the number and violence of incidents are increasing, with more and more young people becoming involved. Karen Sullivan takes a look

In the past few days, within a four-mile radius of where I live in London, there have been four young people fatally stabbed.

This brings the total number of people knifed to death in the UK to 250 this year, and across the country there were 40,147 knife-crime offences in the 12 months to March 2018 – a 16 percentage point increase on the previous year and the highest number since 2011.

I have a 14-year-old son, and I am genuinely concerned about his safety on the streets, where random violence is becoming commonplace and being in the wrong place at the wrong time – wrong, ultimately, meaning something as simple as picking up some chips en route from school, and being caught in the crossfire – can be fatal. Like many parents and educators, I feel an urgent and burning need for this situation to be challenged and addressed.

New research from Barts Health NHS Trust in London, published in the BMJ Open medical journal, assessed medical records for under-25s who had been treated for stab wounds in London between 2004 and 2014. It found that some 1,824 young people were victims of stabbing and 172 were aged under-16 (861 were 16 to 19 and 791 were aged 20 to 24).

The researchers concluded: “From a clinical perspective, the majority of stab injuries in our cohort resulted in relatively minor physical injuries, and deaths were infrequent. However, over half of all stabbings resulted in multiple injuries. This is more than double the frequency observed in a study conducted in our catchment area 30 years ago, which supports anecdotal observations of increasing intensity of violence involving knives.

“We found that children had a higher overall mortality and a higher frequency of potentially preventable deaths compared with young adults despite comparable injury severity scores.”

An interview with consultant trauma surgeon Dr Martin Griffiths in the Guardian, provides some stark and deeply concerning insights.

He said: “In the 1980s in the same part of the city we cover, east London, a stabbing victim was, on average, in his late-20s and had sustained a solitary stab wound. Our average is now 18, and 25 per cent of knife victims we see are of school age. It’s now not unusual to treat victims with multiple stab wounds.

“Five, seven, nine or more wounds are commonplace in our practice. We routinely see increasingly severe injuries ... This year we’ve seen double the number of stab wounds we saw in 2012. For the first time, knife injury is the most common reason London air ambulance helicopters with doctors on board are dispatched.”

More worrying still, this research points to the fact that under-16s are more likely to be injured between the hours of 4pm and 6pm, and close to home, leading doctors to suggest interventions in the school environment, and that staggering release times from school along with visible law enforcement at transport hubs, eateries and other areas may be necessary to halt the violence.

But what’s causing the marked increase in knife crimes, and is there more to it than the burgeoning gang culture? Is it possible that young people are becoming immune to violence and/or suffering from traumatic stress disorders as a result of the violence with which they are more frequently in contact or even directly witnessing?

Is the prolific use of social media fanning the flames and facilitating the ease of young people gathering with ill-intent? And is social media to blame for more extreme positions, the spread of hatred and the desire for vengeance, the host to a rousing chorus of beliefs that encourage an unhealthy group mentality, where individual conscience is silenced by collective views?

Certainly Dr Griffiths believes the latter is possible. He notes: “Information travels near instantaneously and, more importantly, technology gives children access to unfiltered, fully formed opinions and belief systems without the opportunity to challenge or even understand what male and female roles are. We have all been empowered to voice our opinion remotely, for example via social media, without the need or willingness to explain our position or compromise.”

In an extremely moving interview in the Independent, Alika Agidi-Jeffs, a 27-year-old from south London, said: “It’s not normal that I was coming home to a block that has blood on the stairs, or experiencing my friend die not due to natural causes, but because they were shot or stabbed over something trivial. But you’re made to feel that you’re meant to get on with it.

“I know for a fact that a lot of the young people carrying knives are going through a lot of mental turmoil. They will say deep, sad things like ‘I don’t care if someone kills me, they will be doing me a favour anyway’. How do you not hear that and hear the mental health need there?”

In the same article, Charlie Howard, clinical psychologist and founder of MAC-UK, a London-based charity that reaches out to offer mental health services to young people involved in violent crime, noted that the rise in knife crime is producing a generation of young people who are “traumatised, but not talking about it”.

He adds: “They’re witnessing, either directly or second hand, young people losing their lives. Or they’re living in fear because they’re constantly having to watch their backs. These are all things that are not conducive to positive mental health.”

And, in fact, the number of referrals from education settings, for kids who have been traumatised and/or experiencing serious emotional difficulties in response to the culture of violence, has sky-rocketed, at a time when funding for youth psychiatric services has been cut.

Yes, there is an increasing amount of funding being allocated to fighting youth crime on the streets, but without addressing the root cause, the deep-seated impact of years of spiralling violence, will this be effective? Are traumatised young people less likely to experience empathy and is their emotional and cognitive development severely and perhaps permanently disrupted?

This article asks more questions than it answers, but one thing is clear – there is a huge and growing problem on our hands, and the school environment is very likely to be the most effective place to address it. In my next two articles in SecEd (December 6 and January 24), we’ll look at some of the most prevalent causes for the rise in knife crime, and exactly what we might be able to do about it.

Further information

  • Temporal and geographic patterns of stab injuries in young people, Vulliamy, Faulkner, Kirkwood et al, BMJ Open, October 2018:
  • Surgeon’s view: ‘Stabbing victims are getting younger, and their wounds worse’, The Guardian, November 2018:
  • ‘I was gearing up for suicide’: How London’s knife crime epidemic has created a crisis in youth mental health, The Independent, September 2018:


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