Mon | Oct 15, 2018

Garth Rattray | Harmed and dangerous (Part One)

Published:Monday | November 13, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I heard a guest speaker at a university graduation proclaim, "Violence happens when people don't know what to do with their pain." I thought carefully about it and, for the most part, I agree. Of course, there are exceptions ... sometimes the 'pain' is of their own making, sometimes it's jealousy, sometimes it's some sort of competition to outdo a rival, but, when you think about it, he's right.

With that in mind, it occurred to me that the pain that many in our country suffer every day is partly responsible for the escalating violence. It begins in utero. Developing foetuses are impacted by the nutrition provided by their mothers. Inadequate/improper/harmful nutrition caused by poverty and/or ignorance can lead to problems, including deficiencies in essential proteins and fatty acids. These may not manifest as fulminant malnourishment or deformities; however, such nutritional insults can lead to endocrinological disorders and significant changes in brain/ intellectual development.

Additionally, the products that we consume are sometimes tainted with toxins and detrimental amounts of trace elements. Because of poverty, nutritional insults may continue after birth and sometimes lead to psychological problems that predispose some children to academic challenges, inattentiveness, waywardness and even violent behaviour. One often leads to the other and they spiral down into an abyss of poor academic achievement, weak or no skills and unemployability.

In the publication Heavy Metals in Jamaican Soils and Their Impact on Human Security, Health and Development (by Dr Homero Silva, PAHO/WHO Jamaica; Hector Burrowes, MOHE Jamaica; Dr Milagros Caycho, MOH Peru) it was revealed that, "A large amount of Jamaica's soil has higher than safe levels of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc".

The publication asserts that "Only 4.55 per cent of our agricultural soil are within the allowable limits of three heavy metals that were examined".

I recall reading that the only truly safe soil exists in areas that are already populated with houses and business within St Andrew. Those figures are absolutely scary because those toxins can eventually result in cancers and/or brain changes that predispose children and adults to criminality.

Aside from the nutritional problems, many children from poor communities are subjected to environmental situations that expose them to personal and vicarious trauma. In discussing the case of the St Thomas mother beating her child with the broad side of a machete, I was surprised to learn that some of my patients were accustomed to seeing children disciplined in that way in the 'country' where they grew up. In fact, one patient remarked, "Ah no nutten." That level of extreme violence is not only desensitising, it also inculcates impressionable minds and predisposes them to engage in similar behaviour.




Growing up in an environment with constant bickering, fighting and disharmony that occur in many tenement yards, influences developing personalities in a very negative way. Additionally, the dilapidated buildings and unkempt grounds impart a sense of indiscipline and mould many young minds into callousness, aggression and the potential for viciousness that many of us find incomprehensible. We are often appalled by the mercurial temper and predilection for violence that many portray. Without an appreciation of the circumstances of their conception, birth and upbringing, we will always find their behaviour baffling and barbaric.

Many people of my parents' time grew up in abject poverty, yet they very rarely ended up as violent individuals. Perhaps they had better nutrition, better parenting, and neighbours who contributed to their growth and development. Raising children was a community effort; nowadays, scolding a neighbour's child could lead to a violent response from the parents.

Outdoor communal showers and toilets, plastic bags for excreta; single-room domiciles, overcrowding, flies, roaches and rats for housemates; rotting doors and windows, stripping paint and leaking roofs, congested standpipes and candles for light; sparse and uncertain meals; hungry nights and angry days; torn and tattered clothes, one or two worn-down shoes; nakedness and unrestrained sexual behaviour, foul/explicit language, violence and localised anarchy are seen as the social norm in some communities. These things can lead to dysfunctional and perhaps dangerous human beings.

Until we address all these factors that influence human behaviour, we will be in an eternal battle with crime.

Next week in part two, nature vs nurture.

- Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and