Psychologists were urged to become “more intentional” in joining the public discourse on issues important to the mental health of youths. Even if they are constrained by the mandates of their employment as public servants or private practice professionals. “More voices of psychologists are needed in the public domain,” said clinical psychologist, Dr. Valerie Knowles in delivering the keynote address at the World Mental Health Day Conference. “Those who spend their lives pulling others back from the psychological edge must find the time to join others in waging war on the unhealthy norms, values and other culturally supported behaviors that could lock our youths into self-destructive life patterns,” she told a room filled with psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, guidance counsellors and representatives from government ministries. “We have become afraid to go on radio and television shows in times of controversy because of the potential backlash. You risk your boss coming to you the next day and pulling out that clause in General Orders which says that only the permanent secretary has the power to make public utterances. This system has muzzled us as individuals,” she said.
Held under the theme, “Culturally-Relevant Interventions to Promote Youth Mental Health,” the one-day event was hosted Wednesday, October 10, by the Bahamas Psychological Association in partnership with the faculty of Social & Education Studies of the University of The Bahamas, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, The Bahamas Institute for Child, Adolescent Mental Health (BICAMH) and the Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre. “Children don’t just wake up and suddenly begin manifesting deviant behaviors overnight. However, when we start to explain how elements in society are supporting the dysfunctional behavior, some folks become upset. When you show that some of the very things they complain about can be traced to their own behavior, that too can cause discomfort, especially if they are not ready to accept or receive that interpretation,” said Dr Knowles, who moments before her presentation was honoured with the Tim McCartney Award for Outstanding Contribution to Psychology in The Bahamas. “Culture is a double-edged sword,” she said. “Children at birth meet cultural standards, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in place that could either kill or cure them, either initiate and sustain mental illness or mental wellness. ‘We culture’ is not inherently good.”
According to Dr. Knowles, while some elements of our culture can be inspiring, certain aspects of Bahamian culture nurture and support an affinity for high-risk lifestyles – sex, violence, poor eating habits, poor problem-solving mechanisms, and even wasteful leisure time management. She said psychologists could ill afford the luxury of promoting ignorance of the Bahamian sociocultural reality, and its potential impact on youths’ mental illness or wellness. “We know for sure that some of those behaviours that are problematic for us are behaviours learned from us and are well supported by large elements of the Bahamian society,” said the former section head of the Psychological Services Unit of the Ministry of Education’s Special Services Division covering schools in New Providence and Grand Bahama. “Bahamian psychologists as a culture group have been too silent in The Bahamas. We have not screamed loudly enough about the cultural elements that initiate and sustain ill health in our children and youth. Our culture of silence needs healing as we seek to assist the cultural healing of our youth. We need to sound the alarm and keep the mental health needs of children and youth at the forefront with all important national issues.”
Dr. Knowles who has over two decades of experience as a child and adolescent specialist pressed psychologists to continue to offer guidance and seek to more forcefully bring data to inform policy decisions affecting children and their mental health issues. Pointing to pigmentocracy (skin bleaching), nepotism (priority given to friends, family and lovers versus meritocracy), fantasized aggression (where violence is a legitimate form of dispute resolution), Dr Knowles said there is no shortage of cultural elements which exercise influence on youths, inducing and sustaining ill health. “For some of our young ladies, what you look like, how many boys you can get, can earn you more status and attention, than your academic or character qualifications. For some of our youth no other skill, personality trait or characteristic is more important than their sex appeal,” said Dr Knowles. Likewise, she noted many young men have learned to have little appreciation for their intellectual, spiritual, social and emotional characteristics when such attributes are not considered manly in some segments of society.
The psychologist said many who advocate a return to the good, old days are clinging to “a nostalgic myth which brings temporary comfort to the weary” as earlier decades were nestled, she said, in an era of racism, sexism, economic struggle and marginalized human rights. “Gone are the days when the practice of psychology can be about a soft desk and chair in an air-conditioned room,” said Dr Knowles who acknowledged that children need safe spaces and safe, empowering relationships if they have been traumatized. They need to be actively engaged in their healing process as opposed to the traditional, “I talk, you listen” paradigm, she noted. Even in the face of expanding volume of our caseloads and the absence of preferred resources, inclusive of therapy sensitive spaces, she urged colleagues not to give up, but rather formulate 21st century therapy techniques which are diversified, multi-sensory and culturally sensitive.