Features — 11 October 2013 — by Elma Whittaker-Augustine Clinical Psychologist

Belize has been faced with increased crime and violence for a couple decades. In 2012, Belize was rated as the 6th most violent country in the world with a murder rate of 41 per 100,000 residents with the majority of murder, burglary and theft occurring in Belize City. The murder rate for 2012 was also reported to be 15% higher than 2011. In January 2013, the highlight was four brutal murders in the George Street Area, Belize City, and adding to the ongoing statistics is the recent murder in September of the National Karaoke Latino Champion. Crime in Belize has become an overwhelming societal problem that affects us psychologically/personally.

What factors are contributing to high crime and violence in Belize?

Why has Belize become so violent? Others have weighed in on this issue, which is not the scope of this article. However, some contributing factors are the following: increase in the business of drug trafficking, which involves the availability of guns used to protect territory and profits and to deal with rivals; increase in drug use and abuse; gang affiliation and culture which promote a favorable attitude towards a gangster lifestyle, including violence and drug use; high unemployment rate; the lack of opportunities and positive social outlets for our youths; the breakdown of many family values that impact respect for self and others; the increasing divide between the “haves and have nots”; the adaptation of negative foreign culture, etc. An additional indirect cause is the lack of reassurance that persons responsible for murders will be held accountable and brought to justice, and the fact that we do not feel safe reporting crime because of fear of retaliation. As stated in a U.S.A. Department of State Report (OSAC Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Belize Crime and Safety Report, 5/22/13), the problem of crime in Belize is compounded by “very modest capacity to prosecute offenders”.

The Impact of Crime and Violence

We are all in this together. No one in our society escapes the impact of crime and violence which has affected our community in so many ways; crime interferes with our daily life, our personal sense of safety, and our ability to trust. It challenges the fabric of our society, our way of life. Lives are forever changed when parents are gunned down, breadwinners are murdered, and our youth die prematurely. Additionally, our respect for human life and sense of right and wrong erode; we forget problem solving and conflict resolution skills, the norm is to shoot or pay a youth a little change to shoot someone we have a problem with and so our children learn that violence is a solution to problems. We also disrespect each other and feel that we have a right to take someone’s property; hence the need for burglar bars and other protective measures. We are afraid to walk the streets, afraid to go to certain neighbourhoods, and we are hesitant to participate in social activities. These are just some examples of the impact of crime and violence and do not include other impacts, e.g. economical, including the cost to non-fatal victims such as medical expenses, the physical cost such as being paralyzed by a bullet, etc.

Psychological Impact:

Crime and violence also impact us psychologically, whether we are directly exposed, involving self, a family member or friend, or indirectly exposed, via our residence in the community/society or exposure to media coverage. After a family member or friend is killed or hurt or after indirect exposure to crime, it is natural for us to experience strong feelings and effects. Some natural psychological reactions are the following: stress, anxiety, fear, shock. Also, our sense of safety is shattered; therefore, we feel unsafe, insecure, vulnerable, helpless and powerless and may feel anger and outrage. Additionally, we may experience nightmares and flashbacks, re-live the experience over and over, have bad dreams and difficulty sleeping, feel tense, startle easily, feel numb or display hyper-vigilance, have memory blocks regarding the incident, lose interest in activities, avoid places or things that remind us of the incident and have angry outbursts. Other possible reactions are withdrawal, disassociation, amnesia, depression. Our functioning, such as our ability to eat, sleep, think, or concentrate is impacted. Children will have similar reactions as adults but they may also have other extreme reactions such as bedwetting (in toilet-trained individuals); they may stop talking, stutter or become clingy. Older children may have thoughts of revenge or may feel guilt. These are all natural reactions.

Psychological complications can also occur when the normal reactions listed above last beyond several weeks and become a continued problem. When we continue to feel stressed and frightened even after a danger is passed, it indicates that a person may be experiencing Posttraumatic Stress symptoms. When these symptoms last more than one month, it may be Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop after we are a victim of or a witness to murder, physical harm, or threat of physical harm. PTSD symptoms usually occur within a timeframe of three months after a traumatic event, but sometimes they occur years afterwards. Some people recover from these symptoms within six months. If they continue beyond six months, it is considered chronic. In addition to PTSD, other psychological/mental health complications that can occur if our distress response to crime continues are depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, suicide. When distress persists, our physical health is also compromised, e.g. we can develop hypertension, diabetes, heart problems, etc.

Also, numerous research show that crime and violence result in cognitive and behavioral changes, especially among youths. Exposure to crime and violence triggers an aroused state of fear. When we “freeze” or become “stuck” in this state of arousal, we experience cognitive deficits. Our brain’s ability to process information, our focus and our memory are affected. Therefore, our exposed youth may have difficulty focusing and processing information. In school they will find it difficult to follow directions, to learn and to remember, and may behave in problematic ways. In other words, students who do not feel safe find it difficult to learn (Perry and Szalavitr, 2006; Matthews and Saywitz, 1992). They also experience behavioral changes such as difficulty with sleep, aggression and agitation. Additionally, poor problem solving, damaged self-esteem and hopelessness have been clearly linked to negative/traumatic life events (Stein and Kendell, 2004; LeDoux, 2002; Schore, 2001; Teicher, 2000; Yang and Clum, 2000).

Additionally, medical research shows that excessive exposure to violence will alter the developing central nervous system. “This predisposes the victim to be a more impulsive, reactive and violent individual” (Professor Richard Hellie). Consequently, violence can “breed” more violence.

Another tragic psychological impact of crime and violence which can occur is becoming de-sensitized; we begin to view and accept crime as normal, as our way of life. As a society we need to guard against this tragedy and to make sure that crime and violence do not become a characteristic of our culture.

Recommendations:

• It is important that we understand the problematic impact of crime and violence on victims, survivors and society. Our natural response such as feeling insecure, etc. to crime is normal and not a mental illness. However, after such experiences, we need family, friends and other social support to help us cope and go on even if we are feeling fearful. One important aspect of this is the response of parents. It is important that parents remember that children look to them for guidance to manage their reactions and feelings and for their sense of safety and security. Many studies show that available family support and parents modeling ways to manage emotional reactions have a significant impact on a favorable outcome.

• In addition to support from family and friends, psychological interventions, e.g. individual, family and group talk therapies which include a focus on making sense of bad memories, coping techniques to reduce PTSD symptoms, education about trauma and its effects, correcting cognitive misunderstanding that removes self-blame and doubts are helpful. Medications are also used to help control PTSD symptoms. In Belize we need to enhance cognitive and social protective factors by making available supportive resources in our community and in our schools for crime victims.

• Additionally, victims and survivors of crime and violence need to feel safe in reporting crimes against them and they need reassurance that the individuals responsible will be held accountable and brought to justice.

• Solutions will require an understanding of the problem, building a broad coalition of support that includes community leaders, families, law enforcement, social services, schools, therapists, counselors, faith-based leaders and youths.

• The key is to focus on prevention. This requires developing an array of strategies to address root causes, including education and employment, treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, implementation of prevention plans that will ensure our children can safely go to school, after-school programs for youth, community programs for our youth, employment training programs, and support and funding for positive outlets such as sports, art, music, etc.

• In the criminal justice system, we need to focus on rehabilitation by addressing the needs and risks of prisoners. This can foster public safety.

• Perspective: we need to pause and look at the madness that underlies the killing and harming of our Belizean brothers and sisters. We need to reflect on what life is truly about. It is also important that we see ourselves as resilient problem solvers, not victims. We also need to remember that we are one people; therefore, united we can work to overcome our problems. Divided we are distracted and can open the door for others to exploit our country and its resources while we eliminate each other. We should not allow Belize to be described as a country of crime and violence. We should never accept crime and violence as a way of life. Belizeans have historically been peaceful and basically God-fearing people. Please, let us work on stopping the madness. Let us write our own history; we are all in this together.

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