The Glasgow organisation seeking to prevent violence

23 May 2019

The organisation’s slogan. Photograph: Craig Quirie

Medics Against Violence and their fight against violence

From once having the blood red tag of “the murder capital of the world”, Glasgow now acts as a blueprint for others tackling violence through various organisations that use modern techniques to combat historical problems.

One of these organisations is Medics Against Violence. It was founded in 2008 by three surgeons, today it has volunteers from all different medical fields. The organisation seeks to go beyond merely ensuring the health of an individual, and instead works to ensure individuals don’t get into situations that puts their own, and others, health at risk in the first place.

Dr Tom Berry is a board member of Medics Against Violence. A former surgeon, he now hosts various events that seek to educate young people on the ramifications of violence.

“I got involved because, as a surgeon, I saw the effects of violence first hand; I saw people die from violence and had to tell their family members they had died – it frustrated and upset me.

“As a surgeon, I have to deal with people who, through no fault of their own just stroke of misfortune, have cancer. I have to give them the bad news that their cancer can’t be cured, and that they’re going to die. That is upsetting, but there is an added layer to it when you have to tell relatives that a young member of their family has died needlessly through violence.

“I’d like people who go on to become doctors, nurses, paramedics, surgeons in the future to not ever have to have those conversations with families. If it’s that upsetting for us, how upsetting must it be for the family?”

Berry, alongside the other volunteers, visit secondary schools in Glasgow and the surrounding areas to provide lessons to S1 and S2 pupils. Often, these lessons will be taken by S6 pupils, with the organisation finding that younger pupils are more likely to pay attention if their older peers participate in the class. Which is not to say the class’s content would otherwise be ignored. Berry says that rowdy classes have often been left in silence come the end of the session.

The lessons see youngsters learning about the consequences of violence, followed by showings of graphic images and films of injuries. Alongside his work with the Prince’s Trust, visits to community projects and young offenders’ units he estimates that he has spoken about the consequences of violence to over 1000 young people in the past calendar year.

Berry knows all too well that no amount of education will prepare someone to deal with the consequences of violence. Instead, the premise of the teaching is to ensure that youngsters never get to a point where such consequences become a reality.

He said: “I don’t think [medical training and education] ever does prepare you – and that’s no blaming of the education. There’s been a lot more work from when I started at university onwards within medicine to improve communication skills and how to break bad news – stuff that wasn’t previously taught to doctors.

“How you are going to deal with seeing people who are murdered, potentially fatally injured, scarred or chronically injured by violence will be unknown until you’re in that position – it’s good if you are affected by it, the day that it stops having an effect on you is the day you should stop doing [medicine]”.

Although there were difficulties breaking bad news to families, Berry insists that that such worries only came into focus after seeing that patients get adequate medical care.

“At the time you focus on what you have to do. If someone comes in and they’ve been stabbed, normally they’re still bleeding. If they’re unwell, then they’re bleeding internally –and your job is to get them to theatre and operate on them. You’re in an autopilot mode throughout – you’re looking to stop the bleeding, and there’s a standard way you’re going to go about that process. When your pager goes off on a side table, it’ll be A&E to tell you the family have turned up, they are in the relatives room, they’ve been spoken to and told their family member is in theatre – but it’s going to be your job to go down and give them the update.

“As someone once wrote in a book, it’s the ‘elevator thoughts’ – so it’s while you’re on your way to meet the family that you think what you’re going to tell them, how it’ll affect them and how people will react in different ways – some will be silent, some extremely angry, some immensely grief stricken. You never know what you’re going to walk into, and how they will react.”

Infographic detailing murder statistics and discussed poverty levels. Infographic: Craig Quirie

In 2013, the documentary series, Gangs of Britain, released an episode detailing Glasgow’s relationship with gangs and violence. The documentary noted that scars were a badge of honour to some, and one surgeon went as far to say that some young people were happy to hear that their scars wouldn’t heal. Times have changed however, and such scars are now a permanent marker on the victim’s future opportunities.

Berry said: “There was once a bravado about being slashed. At Prince’s trust, I speak to young people who have been excluded from school for carrying knives, or were involved with gangs, and they will tell you that if you’ve been slashed it’s going to affect your life – you’re not going to get the job you want.”

He continued: “I was in Princes Trust last week, and a guy told me he had a friend who had been in an accident but the injuries made it look like he had been slashed – and in his words, ‘Now everyone thinks this guy is a ned, and he can’t even get a part-time job.’”

Medics Against Violence works in partnership with the Violence Reduction Unit – a police lead organisation with similar aims. The Violence Reduction Unit runs the Street & Arrow café in Glasgow Dental Hospital, which hires people previously convicted of violent crimes.  Unfortunately, due to the staff members still being in recovery, no one from the café or the Violence Reduction Unit was able to be interviewed on the running of the café.

Berry, however, is not just a supporter of the food served in Street & Arrow – with the soup receiving the most plaudits in particular – but the concept behind it.

He said: “I think the root cause of violence is often dissatisfaction and hopelessness – we live in a society where around 20% of households with children are in relative poverty. I think if you have people in relative poverty, generational cycles of unemployment or low-income jobs, family members incarcerated or suffering emotional, physical or sexual abuse then those things can normalise what should not be normal behaviour.

“If you want to cure violence, you have to give people hope, give support, make sure children aren’t going hungry and feeling lost or unsupported – and if you do that, you reduce violence.”

He insists that the media could also play a better part in ensuring violence is not encouraged, saying that he doesn’t believe that video games can influence someone who otherwise wouldn’t be violent into becoming violent – however, advertising real life situations can frighten someone into putting themselves into a situation where severe violence becomes a potential scenario.

Berry said: “In the media, when there’s a story on violence, they like to put pictures of great big knives and swords we’ve taken off someone – and that’s the sort of thing that can make someone in that sort of environment think: ‘Well I better carry a knife, because look at these things.’ And I don’t think there’s a need when reporting on current, present violence to try and get a shock value through using photos of big scary weapons – I think that is unhelpful.”

With England setting up its own Violence Reduction Unit in London, on the back of Glasgow’s success in lowering its violence rates, I was keen to speak with ordinary locals on what life was like when their city was being dubbed “the murder capital of the world”.

 Kieran Murray, 28, said: “I’m from the north side of Glasgow, and although I was never involved with gangs growing up, there was still certain areas that I couldn’t go, as people [my age] would immediately recognise my face as not being from there and then anything could happen.

“It’s a different world now. My wee nephew can cut about wherever – kids just don’t care about territory anymore, and things like designer jackets are flashier than a blade nowadays.”

Brian Duffy, 54, said: “Back when I was growing up, a slash would probably be what a skelp across the face is now. Youngsters have wised up. People are going to get caught going around [using knives] now.”

Berry had his own experience growing up: “I remember as a prefect at my school finding a first-year boy during class-time in the corridor. He burst into tears after I asked why he wasn’t in class – someone in his maths class had ran a Stanley blade down his back, and he didn’t want to grass so just asked if he could go to the toilet.”

It would be difficult to pinpoint the main reason for the drop-in violence rates in Glasgow, but it is clear from statistics that there has been a positive change since the founding of Medics Against Violence in 2008. The organisation has studied the work of programmes used to tackle and rehabilitate the gangs of Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles in the 90s. American programmes have also studied the work of Medics Against Violence – so it is clear that key principles of preventing violence are universal, and continuously evolving.

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