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Psychiatrist urges country to tackle crime, violence through preventing mental illnesses

BY ANIKA RICHARDS Associate editor - news richardsai@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, February 23, 2017

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LEADING Jamaican psychiatrist and professor, Frederick Hickling, is convinced that the country’s "draconian" approach to crime fighting is not working.


"All that happens is that the crime figures and the murder figures keep fluctuating, but really going up, up and up," Hickling told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview. "And more problems with children, higher levels of teenage pregnancy, all kinds of sexual abuse and physical abuse... Things that we have been doing have not been working; so we are saying ‘we need to look at the problem from a different perspective and try to find new solutions’."


In fact, Hickling, who is also the executive director of the University of the West Indies’ (UWI’s) Caribbean Institute of Mental Health and Substance Abuse (CARIMENSA), believes the country should tackle violence and violent crime by preventing mental illness.


"The country has been trying to sort the problem out by using draconian methods of control — the police — and it hasn’t been working. It has never worked and it’s not working at the moment and, therefore, we are saying we have to stop, re-evaluate what we are doing, and identify other methodologies that will transform the situation and transform the children and the people in the country," he insisted.


But is there a link between the country’s crime problem and mental health? Hickling said: "Absolutely."


"We are identifying that the crime problem and the murder problem and a number of the behavioural problems in children are all related to mental health issues, and that we have to find ways to counteract them from before they start," he noted.


The psychiatrist told the Observer that the majority of people who carry out criminal activities have personality disorders or they have some kind of psychiatric pathology, some kind of illness, which predisposes them to work in gangs and to be involved in crime.


"… [It is] just that we have never looked at it in that way before," Hickling reasoned.


He explained that CARIMENSA is one of the few institutions globally that only deals with prevention of mental illness, that is, rather than trying to treat mental illness, it focuses on trying to prevent it.


Since 2006, the institute has been using cultural therapy to help transform the worst behaving children into the most productive and creative children within their primary schools.


He explained that the therapy combines psychological techniques, which are taught to teachers who in turn teach it to children, who use the techniques to help talk about traumatic events that occurred in their lives and to find ways to overcome and overturn them.


Hickling said, so far, CARIMENSA has worked with nearly 70 schools and more than 1,500 students. The results have been "excellent", he said.


The institute worked with 30 children in 2006, and, according to Hickling, they have all completed high school and are doing very well.


"They are working and, as far as we know, none of them have been involved in any kind of crime or violent behaviour," he told the
Observer.


"We work with children who have finished grade three and just going on into grade four and we ask the teachers to select the worst performing and the worst behaving children," he explained. "So we are not interested in the children who are doing well; we are interested in the children who are doing badly."


Hickling said this methodology works.


"We know the techniques work. So we just have to find a way to transition, to scale to all the schools, all the young people, over a period of time," he said.


Though reluctant to issue an appeal to the Government in this regard, Hickling said: "We are scientists and we are doing things that are evidence-based — proof of evidence that they work. And if the leaders of the country and the politicians of the country are not prepared to listen to the behavioural scientists who know how to solve the problems, then it means that the problem is with the politicians and the leaders."


Tomorrow, the Jamaica Psychiatric Association, CARIMENSA, and Montreal, Canada’s McGill University are set to stage the second annual Global Mental Health Conference, which will look at reducing crime, violence and other social pathology through the prevention of mental illness.


The conference, to be held in Lecture Threatre Three at the Faculty of Medical Sciences, Teaching and Research Complex at the University of the West Indies, Mona, under the theme ‘Prevention, Better than Cure: Psychosocial Re-engineering for Prevention of Mental Illness’, will seek to identify relevant ways of working for greater equity and social justice, and facilitate access to effective, culturally safe and appropriate mental health care on a global scale.


Former Governor General of Jamaica Sir Kenneth Hall is expected to open the conference, which will bring partners from Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean region together to explore how global mental health policy can most effectively respond to their needs through appropriate modes of community-based practice and novel approaches to defining research priorities.


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