Thinking that criminals are just a bunch of drug addicts, cash-strapped desperados or plainly bad people borders on naive. Scientific evidence suggesting that childhood trauma plays a major part in criminal or socially unacceptable behaviour is coming to the fore – and fuels the need for serious change in South Africa.
Recent reports published in support of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign indicate that how well a person was cared for as an infant may tell of what the future holds once that child grows up.
Toxic stress fuels ‘bad choices’
“The level of care given to an infant during the first few months of life forms the major contributors to making a difference between responsible and irresponsible adults. They either become delinquents or clear thinking adults with the ability to control stress,” Neuroscientist Dr. Barak Morgan told attendees at a recent Human Science Research Council.
Morgan went on to describe a ‘bottom-up’ approach, according to which infants adopt a “lose your head to survive” or “act first think later” strategy, mainly as a result of insufficient care by a caregiver in moments of infant distress. This lack of care means an infant never learns to switch off from stress response mode, in which case the stress becomes toxic. It is from this toxic stress that abnormal, antisocial, or delinquent behaviour stems.
This includes substance abuse, according to Dr. Gabor Maté, who has spent 12 years looking after individuals with severe addictions in the Canadian city of Vancouver.
“The major contributing factor to the onset of illness, whether it’s mental illness, physical illness, whether it’s addiction, whether it’s behaviour problems – it’s what happens to people in the first few years of life,” Maté says in a clip posted on Youtube (video below).
Statistics indicate that roughly a third of the South African population are addicted to some kind of drug (which includes over-the-counter and illegal drugs). We have the highest level of per capita alcohol consumption in the world. Unsurprisingly, drug and alcohol abuse is a factor in more than 60% of crimes committed locally.
Genetic predisposition irrelevant
Perhaps equally as dangerous as childhood trauma or even drug and substance abuse is the ignorance shared among many regarding the motivation for this behaviour: the high probability of early childhood abuse is ignored in favour of arguments which place the blame squarely on the individual.
Maté goes on to say that “neither is it a disease or a choice, nor is it something that is inherited. We also know that people who do inherit these genes which may make them predisposed to addiction – if they are brought up in proper environments, they are no more at risk of addiction than anybody else.”
So what can be done?
Both Morgan and Maté cite social and economic conditions as the main drivers for early childhood trauma; parents affected by poverty or inadequate living conditions are less capable of preventing their babies’ stresses. Yet in a country where the political will required to combat these issues is at best inconsistent and marred by widespread corruption and underperformance, the chances of an imminent solution remain remote.
A more immediate and practical solution may be for those organisations who fight for the rights of the vulnerable to focus their attentions on the development of programs aimed at, to put it frankly, better parenting, and programs that teach parents to better mitigate the pressures they experience in their daily lives. This perhaps instead of campaigning for harsher sentences – because even with increasingly longer prison terms our crime rates are still rising.