By Vanessa Boachie, Psychological Therapist & Founder of Inside Out Well-being
Trigger Warning: Knife Crime
Last weekend was a struggle. I hardly slept, I lost my appetite, my thoughts were racing, I was finding it difficult to concentrate, the heart palpitations were doing their thing and it left me feeling drained and exhausted throughout the rest of the week. What helped me through was my awareness of these symptoms, knowing that I was experiencing normal reactions to abnormal events helped me to begin processing what had happened.
Artwork by @kirzart www.kirzart.com
Last Friday night, just as I’d finished making my dinner, ready to sit down and wind down for the weekend, I heard what felt like the most painful screams I have heard in my life. The screaming was so intense that I felt it in my whole body. I immediately knew that something was not right. I went to my window to see what was going on and I was surprised, but not to so surprised to see my neighbourhood surrounded with police tape, flashing lights, about 4 police cars and an ambulance. I instantly felt that tightness in my chest. My heart started racing and my first thoughts were “not again”.
From the moment I saw the police tape, I already knew what it was. I still prayed for it not to be what I was thinking, but I couldn’t stop the worst possible scenarios, thoughts and images playing in my mind. Anxiety levels were high and so I began my usual routine. First, I called my younger brother to find out where he was. His phone went to voicemail. My heart dropped. I sent him a message on WhatsApp, and in what felt like the longest 2 minutes later, he replied saying that he was safe, and his phone had been on “do not disturb”. That gave me a slight sense of relief.
I called my mum, and woke her up from her sleep- she was safe. I called my family members who live in the area- they were all safe at home. I felt another sense of relief, but that did not stop my racing thoughts.
Not too longer after, there was a loud knock on my front door and again the worst possible thoughts came to mind. I went to the door and saw a man dressed in police uniform. Nine times out of ten, when a policeman knocks on your door, they are not coming with good news. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I thought “I’ve checked on my brother, I’ve checked on my mum, my aunties, uncle, cousins, is there someone I’ve missed?”. Before he even said anything, I opened the door and asked “what’s happened?”. He responded by saying “there has been an incident in the area, so I’m going around to ask neighbours if they heard or saw anything earlier on this evening”. Prior to looking outside my window that evening, I was so consumed in an online meeting that I was in my own world. I asked him again "what's happened?", and all he said was "it’s too early to say". We both knew what that meant.
Later on that evening, those “worst possible case scenario” thoughts and images that were going through my mind had been confirmed. I found out that a young boy from the area had been stabbed and he passed away at the scene. The painful screams and wailing I heard earlier on that evening were from his mother finding out that her 15-year-old son had been murdered. Rest in Peace Kayjon. The wailing from his mum kept on replaying in my mind. Thinking about his young life being taken, his mum, his family, his close friends and the impact of this brought me to tears.
RIP Kayjon Lubin
Growing up in the “hood”
I have lived in East London for most of my life and during this time, I feel I have lost count on the number of incidents, violence, young deaths I have been around. My first memory of knife crime was when I was in secondary school, in year 8 when a young boy in the year below was stabbed to death near the school building. Since then, it feels like there has been a vicious cycle. A life is lost, then they start handing out anti-knife crime leaflets, we attend meetings after meetings after meetings discussing what can be done to stop this, then resources get taken away, there is no follow up and the cycle starts again. It has been exhausting and our communities are exhausted. It feels like an open wound that hasn’t healed, so every so often opens up again, and it causes just as much pain or sometimes more pain than the initial wound. It’s painful.
I understand that knife crime in the UK is a very complex issue and there are multiple layers to it. On one end we have: toxic environments influenced by austerity, inequalities in the systems, broken communities and homes, lack of resources, inadequate support. On the other hand, there is lack of hope, lack of trust, vacant esteem (individuals who are emotionally numb), marked propensity for anger and violence (the natural tendency to be behave aggressively due to previous trauma). This is not an exhaustive list.
Artwork by @kirzart www.kirzart.com
Over the years I have learned that this challenge does not have a one-size-fits-all solution, I believe a multi-faceted/multi-disciplinary approach is required to tackle knife crime. I believe everyone holds a piece of the puzzle and can support in some way. Even if it is through supporting and/or donating towards community led organisations who already putting in the work to support youth with their mental, physical and social health, financial well-being, career prospects and personal development. Organisations such Newham All Starts Sports Academy, Milk and Honey, The Reach Out Project, 4front Project, Kiyan Prince Foundation and Godwin Lawson Foundation are doing amazing work in the community!
The psychological impacts
Naturally as a trained therapist, a key concern for me is the aftermath of these reoccurring incidents. The psychological impacts of knife for family, friends, and also for the local community- people who grow up and live at the heart of where these incidents takes place. Trauma manifests not only at the individual level, but at the community level, through exposure to interpersonal violence and structural violence. The accumulation of these difficult events can have negative consequences on individuals’ mental health, even for those who may not be directly involved.
In the long run, this can lead to vicarious trauma (experience of trauma symptoms resulting from repeated exposure to other people’s trauma). Many young people and young adults may see or hear devastating events, then go back to school, college or work the next week without processing the traumatic events and are expected to function as usual. It is not a surprise that many turn towards unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol dependency and substance use to mask the pain.
Over time, this can lead to further mental health challenges such as:
1. Grief – the intense feeling of sorrow that occurs after a loss. The shock and agony from losing someone unexpectedly through violence
2. Generalised Anxiety Disorder – feeling anxious most of the time, a sense of dread, constant worrying about multiple things. For example, worrying about leaving your house, not wanting to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, worrying about your safety and the safety of others particularly young Black male family members and friends
3. Stress – feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope due to the pressures that appear unmanageable. The pressure to bounce back, keep going and stay on top of your usual life
4. Panic Attacks- a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, heart palpitations, shaking, a churning stomach, a feeling of dread or fear or a fear of dying (most panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes)
5. Depression – persistent sadness over weeks and months, feeling hopeless, loss of interest, lack of motivation to do anything, constantly tired, feeling that life is no longer worth living
6. Low self-esteem- seeing yourself and your life in a negative and critical light
7. Long term impacts such as: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - reliving experiences through flashbacks and dreams. Avoiding reminders being hyper vigilant of surrounding.
As important as it is for us to highlight the psychological consequence of growing up in difficult environments where there are high level of knife crime, it is also important for us to acknowledge that these experiences impact people in different ways. For some people who experience trauma whether directly or indirectly, they are able to find opportunities to develop a new understanding of themselves and the world they live in. It can lead to a positive change where they are able to grow from the adversities and translate their pain into purpose- psychologists refer to this as Post Traumatic Growth.