Hanif Benjamin: A nation in trauma

Hanif Benjamin, found of the Centre for Human Development, clinical therapist and clinican traumatologist, at his Pasea Road, Tunapuna, office. - Angelo Marcelle
Hanif Benjamin, found of the Centre for Human Development, clinical therapist and clinican traumatologist, at his Pasea Road, Tunapuna, office. - Angelo Marcelle

It starts with death.

A young girl, or boy, dies at the hands of criminals in a brutal manner. Shock and pain sweeps the country. Citizens, in their cries of anger and outrage, take to the streets and march, stage candle-light vigils and call for change.

In some cases, the public vents its rage in fiery protests, burning debris in the streets.

Politicians join the public and hold their hands, and even shed tears for the victims. Some take action.

But, when the candles dim and marches are over, the furore and outrage also dies down and everyone goes home until someone else dies.

Then the process starts all over again.

That process was carried out after the death of Andrea Bharatt, a 23-year-old court clerk who was found dead down a precipice at the Heights of Aripo on February 4. She was abducted a week before. Before that it was Ashanti Riley, who was found dead in a similar fashion on December 4, last year.

The list back for decades: Gabrielle Du Barry, Naiee Singh, Murkeisha Maynard, Rachael Ramkissoon, Shannon Banfield, all the way back to Sean Luke – all innocent people who died violently with little to no recompense. Their deaths also triggered protests, outcry and national mourning, but were eventually forgotten until the next tragedy.

Does it change anything? Does the cycle of death, trauma, outrage and dismissal deal with the root causes of the violence which affects each person in TT?

Centre for Human Development founder and CEO, Hannif E. A. Benjamin, in an interview with Newsday, said TT’s current course of action, even the implementation of a sex registry and new laws being passed to legalise the use of pepper spray, are only treatments to the symptoms of a much deeper disease: trauma.

Benjamin said the nation is full of people whose traumatic childhood experiences have set them on a path that would led them down violent roads with a fatal end. He said unless TT puts preventative measures in place to handle childhood trauma, the cycle will continue and TT will remain a nation in trauma.

The nation is hurting

As it stands right now the entire nation is hurting, Benjamin said. The nation as a whole was traumatised by the death of Bharatt and the deaths of so many others, but reactions to those deaths were based on emotions. That is not healthy, he posited.

“If you want any evidence of that go to social media. You are seeing the hurt and pain of people.”

There are several categories of people dealing with this nationwide trauma. In one category, there are people who had some form of first-hand experience with violence and crime. Those people re-live the experience when someone new dies.

Another category is those who have recently had a traumatising experience with crime and violence. Each incident of murder, rape, robbery and other forms of violence triggers the memories of their own trauma and they relive the realness of the brutality they face.

Then there are those who experience the incident vicariously, as though it happened to their sister, mother, friend or even themselves.

“That is where a level of hopelessness comes in,” Benjamin said. “(In Bharatt’s case) this lady did everything she was supposed to: she travelled with someone, she got in an H car, but she still met her demise in a brutal way. What does that say to onlookers? They now wonder what they should do differently to remain safe.”

These variations of trauma, Benjamin says, are the triggers that cause the nationwide marches and public outcries that are seen and heard every time an innocent person dies.

“(People) feel as though they must do something; that someone must do something. That is why with the two suspects dying you find an argument that it was justice served. So because we feel a particular way, for a moment we have forgotten what justice really is.”

That trauma combined with the myriad of other problems TT faces, including covid19, unemployment, economic downturns , for example, mutates that initial trauma into what Benjamin called "compounded or complex trauma."

“Now that is the troublesome one. Now, you have to decipher all the different areas that we have to deal with.”

He said TT has no plan to deal with national trauma. All the measures were done so in silos, and as a result, there are piecemeal effects that do not treat the real issues and core problems. So while, on occasion, the symptoms would be addressed, the real issue persists.

He added, "One cannot legislate emotion."

Regardless of the laws put in place, they would only be reactive, he said. Shelters, protection orders, among others, also share the same flaw. By the time any of these things come into play, it is already too late, Benjamin said.

“When a person’s emotions are deregulated they can kill you and wait for the police, as we have seen. They have no concept of spending 30 years in jail or million-dollar bail bonds.

“Putting a registry would not stop paedophiles. It is an illness. You could put all the laws in place to stop a sadistic criminal, unless that law is to put him away for his natural life, it would not change anything.

“What we need is an understanding of our social tapestry. We lack professional guidance to allow healing.”

He said all systems - educational, political, business and religious - will have to synergise their efforts.

“We have to look at all our systems. And I am not one to talk about government because I have worked in systems where government has but a small role.

“Government should ensure programmes are established by the people who are skilled to do it and give them the money to do it. If we depend on the government to fix everything they will not fix anything because they are too stretched. Then the political divide between parties has been so brutal that it makes doing things painful. You need to have the people who are capable of fixing to do that.

“We haven’t touched the kind of programmes we need to help women, men and children. We have great organisations doing great things in each corner, but a nationwide effort, we don’t have that.”

Down a bad road

The fact that there is no synergy among the efforts to deal with trauma and the root causes of crime and violence in TT means that many people ­– sometimes entire families – slip through the cracks.

Those who slip through the cracks end up down a winding road that ends in tragedy and sometimes death.

“Imagine a little boy or girl who has a learning disability and cannot read or write well enough for his age goes to a school with hundreds of children - so he is pushed to the side.

“His teacher calls you to do a sum but you do not know it and you are going to get embarrassed, so rather than that he acts a fool, because he wants to distract from the fact that he does not know the work.

“If he does that long enough then he will be kicked out of the class; which I think is a terrible thing to do.

“If he gets kicked out of his class enough eventually he will stop going and he will find himself hanging out with other boys and girls who got kicked out of class.

“If he does that long enough he will find a gang to join. If he stays in the gang long enough he will start to rob, steal and beat people. If he does that long enough then there is either a cell waiting for him in the jail or a bed waiting for him in the morgue.”

That is one of many roads those who slip through the cracks could follow, Benjamin said. Similar paths take people to drug abuse, domestic violence, among others.

Benjamin said TT also has to admit it is a violent society. As a nation, it has accepted violence and Benjamin says that is at the root of the cycle of violence in TT.

Corporal punishment, domestic violence, crimes against women, gang violence and gang activity are all results of what was taught from an early age.

“When we beat children we teach them how to deal with their issues. When you do something wrong we beat you. So now you must lie, hide and cheat so you wouldn't get caught and beaten. So you grow up lying, hiding and cheating.

“When you beat children we are telling them how we should respond. So when I grow up I’m gonna beat you if you don’t listen.

“When you beat your wife in front of your child you are telling them this is how you command respect. You tell your boy that he is a ‘sissy’ if he cries then you tell him that he should be rugged and brutal when he grows up.

“Therefore we cannot be surprised when domestic violence continues. We cannot be surprised when we see crime and violence all over the place. We cannot be surprised because we taught each other what to become; we taught each other who to become.”

A 360-degree approach

He suggested a 360-degree approach. On one end, put processes and mechanisms in place that would identify initial traumatic experiences that happen now, and on the other, identify root causes of trauma and treat with and try to prevent either long-lasting damage from the situation or the situation itself.

Benjamin said said in every situation there is a course of action: a beginning, middle and end, and most times we consider neither the beginning or the middle but we try to deal with the end result.

He related the life of a client who gave his permission to tell his story.

The client John (not his real name) reached out to Benjamin on Facebook and said he needed help. When they got in contact, John said he had just gotten out of jail and was near homicidal with anger.

“John said he just spent six months in jail and said he wanted to kill ‘she’ and all her family. I asked why. He said ‘she’ took out a restraining order on him, then came to his house with a knife. A struggle ensued and ‘she’ got a cut on her hand. He was arrested and jailed for six months for assaulting her and breaching the restraining order.

“Should that man have gone to jail for six months? Or should that couple meet with a social worker to deal with the issues and the cause of their problems?”

Benjamin said each situation could be managed if people identify their root problem, educate people on how to resolve issues and conflicts and engage in conversation.

He said while emergency shelters, laws and bodies are important, they should not be the only solutions to solving violence and trauma.

“I have seen women and men brutalised, men and women go to jail for things that we can work out, where we could sit down and find the root cause of the problem and help them through it.”

He called for an industry to be built around social work and mental health which would absorb graduates in social work from universities across the country.

“We have health centers, community centers. Populate these centers with social workers and psychologists just like we put doctors and nurses. If I know that there is someone I can talk to, I will do that.

“Have social workers posted in community centers in afternoons so that if a parent has a problem with their child they can take them there in an afternoon. People need help and they don’t know where to get it.”


"Hanif Benjamin: A nation in trauma"

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