Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?
I was born In Georgetown, Guyana, the 4th of 7 siblings, at a time when it was still called British Guyana or BG. We were an average, lower middle class family, with my parents struggling to make ends meet. Still, they encouraged us to dream big, reach for the stars and to do our best. Most of all, my mother used to encourage us to lead by example. One of her favourite exhortations was: If you know better, then do better.
Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?
My mother had not much more than an elementary school education, but she did have an admirable sense of purpose and generosity, as well as a strong sense of commitment to family, community and service to others. She was never able to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse, but in her latter years, after she too immigrated to Canada, she did manage to work as a Personal Support Worker, which she was still doing at the time of her death at age 82.
What is your educational background?
My pre-university education was completed in Guyana. My interest in a career in medicine began to emerge in my late elementary school years, but really blossomed while I was in high school. At the time, our educational system followed a British model, and the trend of my peers at school was to travel to the UK to study medicine. Unfortunately, that was beyond my own or my parents’ financial capacity at the time of my graduation. Some of my peers in similar circumstances began to seek admission to universities in Canada, because they could work and support themselves in university while they studied. As such, my choice was to follow a similar path. I came to Canada as a student in 1971 and completed a Bachelor of Science degree in General Science at the University of Guelph. I then worked full-time for a year as a hospital orderly at the Homewood Sanitarium in Guelph as I applied for admission to various medical schools. I gained acceptance in 1976 to the medical school at the University of the West Indies from which I graduated with my medical degree, MB,BS in 1980. I eventually returned to Canada to complete my specialization training which was done in Psychiatry at Queens University in Kingston, ON, followed by a Fellowship (sub-specialization) in Forensic Psychiatry at the Royal Ottawa Hospital (now called The Royal) of the University of Ottawa, where I have remained to date as a member of the Psychiatry Staff in the Integrated Forensics program.
Could you describe your day-job as an Adolescent Forensic Psychiatrist?
Most of my work as an Adolescent Forensic Psychiatrist involves preparing court-ordered assessments of youth who have been charged with various criminal offences. My role is to help the Court understand what impact, if any, underlying factors such as a mental illness, behavioural, emotional psychological or other problems, has had on the youth’s commission of the offence. These assessments are quite comprehensive in scope, and examine a variety of biopsychosocial factors and influences that might have been contributory, and provide recommendations for a management plan to help reduce the risk of future conflicts with the law (recidivism). In addition, my work involves providing psychiatric consultation services to youth in detention in the Ottawa area through the Youth Services Bureau (YSB) as well as youth that are on Secure Treatment orders and residents at the group homes of the Roberts/Smart Centre.
Not long ago, people were shocked about a case in which two teenage girls were convicted of forcefully recruiting their school mates into prostitution. Is this a common occurrence?
While I cannot speak to the details of that particular case, the phenomenon of youth involved in procuring other youth for prostitution services has not been a common occurrence, in my experience. The same is not true of adults, male and female, involved in such activities.
What is the most common reason why young people get into trouble with the law. Is it always due to mental illness or just an aberration in their personality?
There does not appear to be a single most common reason for youth involvement in criminal activity, but rather a constellation of factors that includes biological, psychological and social elements. Most commonly, however, most youth assessed have underlying disruptive behavioural problems, substance use disorders, and possibly emerging mood, anxiety or psychotic disorders. Other contributing factors include family problems, social issues, such as poverty and homelessness, emotional and psychological factors, such as trauma and adverse childhood experiences, which influence the personality development of the youth who come into conflict with the law.
Statistics suggest that the youth population most at risk of getting into trouble with the law are aboriginals and First Nations youth, followed by black youth. Do you see similar numbers in your own professional experience?
The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) contains provisions to increase the appropriate use of extrajudicial measures for less serious offences, so that only those youth who have committed serious and/or repeated offenses or youth for whom an underlying mental illness is a significant concern would have been referred for a court-ordered assessment. In my professional role here in the Champlain Region, there has not been a significant or notable number of referrals for Indigenous or Black youth. In addition to the possibility that several of those youth might have been referred for extrajudicial interventions, the region in which we live, compared to other regions, such as Toronto and Winnipeg, likely has an impact on those numbers.
Is there anything parents can do to protect their children from either getting involved in criminal activity or becoming victims themselves, as in the prostitution case mentioned earlier?
Undoubtedly, parental involvement and influence are pivotal to the issue of a youth’s involvement in crime. A healthy and secure, mutually respectful parent-child relationship is the cornerstone for the protection of children, and one that needs to be developed in early childhood and nurtured through adolescence and into early adulthood. Prevention, through open and honest communications, consistent limit setting, age appropriate monitoring and supervision, and sex-education, as well as engagement in a collaborative approach to problem-solving, would be much less onerous and more effective than crisis intervention and management.
Outside of your professional work as a psychiatrist, do you have any other outside interests or hobbies?
By extension, some of my external interests have included community work with Boards of Directors for youth justice agencies and community mental health agencies such as Youturn and Upstream. In the distant past, travelling was one of my keener interests, as were playing squash and rugby. Making time for extracurricular activities and hobbies are items on my current bucket-list.
Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenges and how do we resolve them? What are our strengths?
In any community in Canada, we stand out and make a statement by our very presence. We may be stereotyped and/or covertly expected to be the ambassadors for the entire Black Community, even as diverse and cosmopolitan as our communities actually are. Our strength comes from our shared experiences and the energy derived therefrom to ensure we have equal voices at the decision-making tables of the country and the respect of our fellow Canadians.
Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?
In every community, its youth are the lenses through which it sees its future. A strong, healthy and vibrant community of the future is contingent upon our investment now in our young people. A strong, supportive home environment, consistent parenting together with modeling of healthy interpersonal relationships, and of mutual and self-respect, will provide the nurturance to our youth that will prepare them to assume their rightful places as future contributors, architects and leaders in our community and in the nation.