Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today Inc.
When I first heard about the atrocities that allegedly occurred at the Government Industrial School (GIS), I was horrified not only by the treatment of the girls but also the misinformed responses from some Bajans who lacked compassion for these youth.
No human being, much less a child, deserves to be thrown naked into an unfurnished cell with a cement floor, especially if he or she is under suicide watch.
It is troubling that there seems to be a widespread belief that adolescents who act out deserve to be treated this way.
In fact, one of the new GIS advisory board members made a social media post implying as such.
Many laypersons don’t understand that juvenile delinquents often behave in response to trauma, whether it’s sexual abuse or the stressors associated with poverty. They are not wicked!
My experience in the mental health field has taught me that oppositional and “difficult” teenagers would greatly benefit from trauma-informed, evidence-based psychotherapy. This involves providing clinical treatment and interventions supported by empirical research as well as recognising how trauma may play a huge role in someone’s life.
There are more ethical and therapeutic ways to deal with suicide risk. Humiliating someone and treating them inhumanely obviously won’t help alleviate their suicidal thoughts. Psychiatric evaluation and staff observation are usually the safest methods for at-risk adolescents.
A psychiatric assessment in a residential or in-patient setting usually results in prescribing psychotropic medication, such as antidepressants, even if it will be used temporarily to help manage the individual’s current symptoms.
Staff would have to observe the youth at least every 15 minutes or, in more severe cases, provide 24/7 observations, known as 1:1. I understand that this may call for more resources than might be currently available. If the youth’s behaviour escalates, de-escalation techniques should be attempted, such as appearing calm, maintaining non-threatening body language, and being an empathic listener.
If all else fails, restraints can be utilised instead of straitjackets. In the US, straitjackets have fallen out of practice for decades now and restraints are highly regulated to ensure everyone’s safety.
Physical (such as a bear hug), chemical (medication, such as Benadryl) or mechanical (being strapped down temporarily) restraints can be used.
An alternative to the straitjacket is a special anti-suicide smock that’s used in some American institutions; it does not restrict the individual’s movement but the material is tear-resistant and too thick to roll or fold, making it impossible to use to create a noose.
If these smocks are not available in Barbados, they are worth the investment and would be a far less demeaning option than being stripped naked. As a longer-term strategy, an adolescent should also receive therapy with a psychologist to help him or she learn coping skills and receive treatment for past traumas and possible psychological disorders.
I certainly don’t want to put the US on a pedestal as their behavioural health system is flawed, but Barbados has a long way to go in terms of mental health advocacy, education and treatment. Barbados may have limited resources in this field but that should not enable us to limit our compassion and empathy.
From the anecdotal information I’ve gathered, GIS has not made significant changes in the past 60 years. I hope this is wrong. If GIS hasn’t helped many girls over several decades but expects different results without making changes, isn’t that the definition of insanity? Statistically speaking, what have been the outcomes for past wards? Have they been able to maintain stable lives with steady occupations after they re-enter society? Or are the rumours true that the school is a pipeline that results in sex trafficking? It was reported the girls were allegedly being told to call male staff members “daddy”. This is highly concerning because this demonstrates a lack of boundaries as well as potential grooming of the girls to have inappropriate relationships with much older men. Sexual predators would see them as ripe for the picking.
The ineffectual intervention from the government reinforces my belief that our image in the international community has been prioritised over investigating the staff at the facility and uncovering how these girls are actually being treated.
We have to ask ourselves, why do middle and upper-class juvenile delinquents never end up at this school? If there were wealthy students with well-connected parents at GIS, would the government have such a disappointing response? Although it’s discouraging that many board members appear to be political appointees who lack relevant experience and have harmful biases, I was happy to hear that youth advocate and clinical psychologist Christa Soleyn was added to the GIS advisory board.
It also gave me hope that there was an outcry among Bajans about this unsettling issue. I would love it if we could continue the momentum of this outrage to create meaningful change instead of it being forgotten for another 60 years.
Gina Aimey-Moss has a Master’s in Clinical Counselling Psychology and is a Certified Professional in Healthcare Quality. She has nine years of experience in the mental health field, including her work ensuring patients receive quality care in behavioural health institutions in Philadelphia. The views and opinions expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of any organisation with which she is affiliated.