Michael Abrahams | An open letter to Commissioner Quallo
Dear Mr Quallo,
Congratulations on your appointment. I celebrate your achievement with you, but do not envy you at all.
On the day of your installation, a policeman was fatally shot in the head when he was disarmed while apprehending a suspect, and another succumbed to a gunshot wound to his head, sustained during a shootout in January.
Dealing with two cops dying as a result of gunshot wounds in less than 24 hours is certainly a baptism of fire. To say that you have your work cut out for you would be an understatement.
You have a mammoth task ahead of you. Jamaica has a serious and persistent problem with crime and violence and nobody seems to have the answers regarding how to deal with this perennial predicament. Our current minister of national security threatened criminals with his 'obeah man' uncle, and his predecessor claimed that only divine intervention could help us.
In the meantime, criminals are having a field day. In addition, police brutality continues to be a major thorn in our sides. It is not unusual for unarmed civilians to be shot and killed, or injured, and for the victims and their families to be denied justice. As if that were not enough, corruption in the force is rife.
The above-mentioned are well known to the majority of Jamaicans. But there is an issue that I feel passionately about that I do not see being addressed, and it is the management of the mental health of members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.
Being a policeman or woman in Jamaica can be extremely stressful. Our murder rate is consistently in the top 10 globally, and police are common targets. Our police force has a bad reputation, and the corruption and brutality have caused the populace to lose faith in, and to fear and distrust, the organisation, so a lot of negative energy is cast in the direction of our law enforcement officers.
Our cops are also not paid well. They have health insurance, but the coverage could be a lot better. The working environment for many is a disgrace, with some stations infested with rats, cockroaches, termites and other pests.
While at work, our cops look up at leaking roofs, down at cracked floors, and across at dirty walls. Many of their vehicles need repair, with malfunctioning air-conditioning units and windows and other issues.
The stress from working under these conditions will affect the health of these men and women. Health encompasses physical, social and mental well-being, and stress compromises all three. Stress can contribute to the development or exacerbation of a formidable list of physical ailments including hypertension, heart attacks, diabetes, asthma, migraine, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. By weakening the immune system, it makes the body less efficient in fighting infections such as the common cold and influenza, and elevates the risk of getting cancer as well.
Then there are the effects on mental health. Merely living in a violent society such as ours is stressful, and being a member of our security forces exposes one to significantly higher stress levels, leading to conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The problem is that our cops are not screened for these problems or educated on how to identify them. As a result, they are being mismanaged. I know cops who have been traumatised after being involved in shootouts and other violent confrontations, or after visiting horrific crime scenes, and have not received adequate therapy. Some may be seen by chaplains, but may require psychotherapy and medication.
When cops are stressed, and on edge, it affects their ability to function effectively. They cannot serve and protect us if they are not served and protected themselves. Proper management of the mental health of the force is urgently needed.
In my opinion, a good start would be to screen cops for depression. Screening for depression is simple. All it requires is filling out a questionnaire. I believe that police in Jamaica should be screened for depression at least twice a year. The condition is not only extremely common but is also underdiagnosed. The stigma associated with mental illness in Jamaica is a barrier.
Another barrier is the fact that in our society, persons with depression often present with physical and not psychological symptoms, making the disorder easy to miss if one is not vigilant. Undiagnosed and untreated depression can have grave consequences. Every now and then we hear of cops who freak out and kill spouses and even their children before taking their own lives. Usually psychopathology has been there for a while, but has gone unchecked.
As a physician, I am willing to assist in any way I can. I love my country and I support you and the police force. If there is any way in which I can assist, please let me know.