In an interview with psychologist Dr Mpho Pheko last week, following the Debonairs assault that caused an uproar on social media, it emerged that a lot of overt actions have to do with psychological factors. Given the repetitive slap, by the assailant on the young man, could there be any scientific or human psychology explanation of why the assailant behaved the way he did? Violence is a complex phenomenon. Generally, it has been defined as the use of physical force to abuse, cause injuries or damage, or destroy victims physically, sexually, psychologically, and through some forms of deprivation. Researchers in this area tend to agree that violence can fall into two categories – predatory or reactive violence. What took place at Debonairs eatery seems to match the definition of reactive violence. In terms of the approach used by the perpetrator, it is important to note that more assessment needs to be carried out to have conclusive reports of causal factors leading to the aggressive episode. Having noted that, we know generally that the weapon or approaches used by the perpetrators can reveal the connection with the victims, the level of rage, and the perpetrators state of mind. Research by Forensic Psychologists has further informed us that close-range contact acts of violence may speak provocativeness, emotionally, power, dominance intimidation, and paranoia. Asked if the action by the assailant reflects the general behavior of Batswana men or whether or not it is an isolated case, Dr Pheko said: I do not think we can generalise it to Batswana. Psychologists generally agree that violence, anger and aggression are complex multifaceted experiences – generally predicted by factors such as low self-esteem, poor socialisation, age, trauma exposure, certain personality traits and psychopathy. Important to highlight is that the male gender is also a key predictor of relational violence aggression in both social and romantic relationships.” She said if a combination of these factors are present in one’s upbringing, they may be more prone to acting violently or aggressively. What does the incident tell us in terms of anger levels and anger management in our country? Are Batswana an angry nation and what could be the cause of such? “We cannot generalise from one incident, but when the violent incidents are taken together (i.e., mob justice, Debonairs incident, domestic violence prevalence, these called murder of passion or femicide), cyber bullying, workplace bullying and mobbing, one can begin to see a pattern of aggressive and violent culture. We need more research to establish the root causes of all these violent and aggressive episodes,” said Dr. Pheko who a is Psychology Lecturer at the University of Botswana. Asked what are some of the possible solutions to this matter especially how stakeholders such as family, government, civil organizations and churches can do to help and curb the situation Dr. Pheko said stakeholders need to come together to identify the root causes and develop holistic interventions for individuals, communities and the general nation. “However, individuals also have to normalise psychological help seeking. A significant number of men and women in our nation are dealing with personal traumas emanating from broken families, abusive parenting, parental negligence, observing parental domestic violence, poverty and more. Such challenges require comfort with seeking psychological help to deal with trauma and other related mental health issues,” she said. On her views about Batswana’s response to such serious issues which they seem to trivialize, she said It’s complicated. “But at a societal level, we know that what is normal or abnormal is generally determined by culture based societal standards and norms such that normality and abnormality is defined and agreed upon by the society we live in. At an individual level, formal diagnoses of psychological disorders should be made by trained mental health professionals,” she said.
The psychologist explained that trained clinicians, the major criteria for making diagnoses include – 1) deviance from what the society consider normal 2) maladaptive behaviour (behaviours that inhibit the individual to adjust healthily in different or specific situations), 3) personal distress – such that the individual, their support system report some type of personal distress,” said the psychologist. While we normally consider mental health at an individual level, some scholars have suggested that there exist collective mental health and collective self-esteem. Having noted this, and reflecting on the World Happiness Report which has been listing Botswana as amongst the top 10 unhappiest countries on earth. While it is difficult to put a finger on it, one can begin to suggest that 1) we may have become a liberal society or that 2) in a bid to protect our mental health and wellbeing, we may have subconsciously become cynical and/or lowered the bar by normalising abnormalities, 3) or that we are engaging in what psychologists call learnt helplessness or learnt hopelessness ( – meaning that we may have simply given up and accepted our fate – further impacting our mental health and well-being). Mental health related research in Botswana is scant or almost non-existent. Relevant stakeholders need to avail funds to conduct extensive mental health related to make informed conclusions and to enable designing of evidence-based interventions.