Monday, August 12, 2013

Act now – for our children

Jean Lowrie-Chin | Observer column | 12 August 2013
Professor Kwame McKenzie
Several occurrences over the past week drove me to some notes I took at a lecture given two months ago by Professor Kwame McKenzie, a British psychiatrist of Caribbean parentage, on ‘Beating Schizophrenia’.  First, there was the heartrending story of 18-month-old infant Joshua Dowe who died while in the company of his mentally disturbed mother.  Then, a report of a man of unsound mind being shot when he tried to break into a clinic. Then, while listening to a couple of talk shows in one single day, I heard a larger number of calls from the lunatic fringe than I had ever heard before!
Dr McKenzie was addressing the 2013 Symposium of the Medical Association of Jamaica, organized under the leadership of their President Dr Aggrey Irons.  Now the Medical Director at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, Canada, he shared some revealing insights with us.
He said that several decades ago, the UK, when studying the major challenges to their economy, came up with the idea of ‘mental capital’.  “They knew they could not out-manufacture their competitors,” said Dr. McKenzie, “So they set out to try to ‘out-think’ them.”
He noted that there was something more important in business than the much vaunted IQ (Intelligence Quotient), explaining, “Microsoft had the tablet before Apple did, but Apple had EQ (Emotional Quotient) – the ability to know what you want before you want it!” This “EQ” is largely determined by mental health. 
Prof McKenzie said that a five-year study revealed that while having a close relative with schizophrenia was a contributing factor in contracting the illness, there were other significant risk factors – factors I listened to with rising dread:
-          Persons who smoked 50 joints of cannabis before 18 have triple the risk
-          Children who were separated from their parents for one year or more before the age of 15 had a similarly dramatic increased risk
-          Being born in the city and raised in a stressful environment
-          Social adversity and bullying in childhood.
As we consider these risk factors and the terrible conditions under which our children are being raised, we understand why we see so much anti-social behaviour in our country.   Prof McKenzie said it was important to target parenting skills.  What stronger argument do we have than the report a few days ago that an armed and dangerous 16-year-old was arrested, being wanted for TEN murders!  Where were the parents of this child when he was being armed and groomed for danger?  
However, whatever the environment, responsible parenting can protect children. Years ago I interviewed World Boxing Champion Michael McCallum who explained that although his childhood was spent in an inner city community, his parents were very protective.  In fact he had to go to church almost every evening because his parents were so fearful of ‘bad company’.  More recently, I am hearing that adults in Fletchers’ land have come together to monitor the children in their community, ensuring that no child is on the road after 9pm.
Simply telling ill-prepared, unemployed folks to become better parents cannot be the solution.  I remember someone explaining the Van Leer method of education where home visits by teachers were compulsory. Even as we have children in the classroom, we need to have their parents in parenting workshops.  At a USAID sponsored workshop in Grants Pen some years ago, we saw the increasing discernment of parents as they learned how to dialogue with and budget for their children. 
A dedicated parent or guardian is the bedrock on which the success of an individual is built.  This is why one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, our own Marcus Mosiah Garvey, stressed the importance of discipline and confidence.  This confidence is nurtured by constant affirmation. Did generations of ‘barrel children’ lose out on this? 
The good news is that with the research shared by Prof McKenzie we can work to prevent schizophrenia and help rehabilitate the mentally ill.  It pained my heart that one of Jamaica’s living saints, Nurse Joy Crooks, Founder of CUMI (Committee for the Upliftment of the Mentally Ill) in Montego Bay, is battling with repeated robberies and vandalism at the sanctuary where so many Jamaicans have been restored to normal life. The Mensana support group for the mentally ill has also been doing yeoman’s service in the Corporate Area.
 However, the problem is much bigger than a few well-meaning groups – it requires a national policy which will address the prevention of mental illness as well as the rehabilitation of those affected.  Unless we tackle crime, the stressful environment in which our children are being raised will perpetuate this tragic cycle of violence.  The facts have been laid out – we must act now.


  1. Yes, CUMI and Mensana do wonderful work. Mensana holds monthly meetings for its support group. The issue of mental illness is barely touched on in Jamaica - nor is it taken seriously, despite some often painful and dramatic incidents that clearly point to the problem.