Wed | Aug 15, 2018

Peter Espeut | Individual pathology or systemic problem?

Published:Friday | April 7, 2017 | 12:00 AM

An 11-year-old has a quarrel with a 14-year-old and chops him to death with a machete, almost severing his head. Is this the act of an individual with a psychological problem, or the external manifestation of a sick society?

If it is the first, its remedy is individual psychiatric evaluation and therapy. If it is the latter, it demands sociological evaluation and social re-engineering.

When Jamaica gained Independence in 1962, the murder rate was 3.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the lowest in the world. In 2005, Jamaica had 1,674 murders, producing a homicide rate of 58 per 100,000 residents; that year, Jamaica had the highest murder rate in the world!

Is it that Jamaica has a high number of individuals who are pathological murderers, or is it that Jamaica is an inherently violent society? Will we solve our violence problem by finding the murderers and executing them, or will our sick society just produce even more killers, like the 11-year-old boy?

Although the legal age of consent (for girls) in Jamaica is 16 years old, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the average age of sexual initiation in Jamaica is 14.5 years for males and 15.8 years for females. An 'average' means there are as many below the mean as above; very many Jamaican girl children first have sex at 11 or 12. Are the men who take the virginity of underage girls simply individuals with psychological problems, or is Jamaica a sick society?

Of course, it may very well be both. A society full of sick people will be a sick society.


Close to home


In some surveys, 40 per cent of Jamaicans say that their first experience of sexual contact was forced, and while still under the age of consent. More often than not, the perpetrator was someone close to home: a family member, teacher, community or religious leader. Or a policeman.

Are these child abusers normal people living their ordinary lives, or are they sick people suffering from some psychological disorder? When mothers pimp their young daughters, sending them out to earn the daily bread for the family by selling sex, is this normal? Do we say something is 'normal' just because it is done? In other words (some argue), because in every generation there are gay people, then being gay is normal. Is it that being sick is normal?

We design solutions to problems according to how we define the problem. If the problem is the individual, our solutions will be directed towards the individual: Find them and lock them up, or castrate them, or execute them, some will demand.

If the problem is in the fabric of the society, we have to carefully reweave. We need social engineering to disintegrate the negative elements, and to integrate positive values and attitudes into the society. But we also need to create social institutions that will reproduce these positive elements in successive generations.

We have treated social dysfunctionality as if it was simply individual dysfunctionality - which is part of it - but the problem is much more than that: Individual dysfunctionality often has its origins in social structures.

In 2013, psychiatrists Fred Hickling and G. Walcott published an article in the West Indian Medical Journal titled 'A view of personality disorder from the colonial periphery'. They developed a Jamaica Personality Disorder Inventory (JPDI) based on the psychological correlates of three factors identified from previous research: dependency, power management, and psychosexual abnormalities. After validating the JPDI using psychiatric and other patients at the University of the West Indies hospital, they commissioned an islandwide scientific survey of 1,506 Jamaicans to evaluate the population.


Personality disorder


They found that "two-fifths (41.4%) of the Jamaican stratified sample studied was eligible for a diagnosis of personality disorder". This compared with rates of between 13-15 per cent in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Europe.

At the UWI, 57 per cent of psychiatric patients showed personality disorder, compared with 28 per cent of non-psychiatric patients.

They conclude that "the heritage of slavery and colonial oppression in Jamaica has resulted in maladaptive personality disorders that have led to extremely high rates of homicide, violence and transgressive behaviour".

The oppressive and dehumanising conditions of slavery led to a free Jamaica with social and economic inequality, and produced Jamaicans with personality disorders transmitted through succeeding generations. Modern social problems may be the result of inherited personality disorders exacerbated by new structures of oppression and dehumanisation that emerged in our dysfunctional political system.

We must be careful that the solutions that we design for today's crime and violence problems address the root causes, and not just the symptoms.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to