Machete gangs: A mental health perspective

Source: Machete gangs: A mental health perspective | The Sunday Mail 12 JAN, 2020

Machete gangs: A mental health perspective

Noreen Wini-Dari & Douglas Zvomuya

Zimbabwe has experienced so much traumatic events across generations.

Each generation has its own unique and fair share of trauma.

With a poor focus on mental health within our country, most people remain untreated and may become perpetrators of violence at family, community or national level.

Some of the common manifestations of poor mental health include substance abuse, suicide, depression and various forms of psychopathology.

The violent killings that have gripped our nation perpetrated by what have become known as machete gangs can at best be seen as a sign of grieving by a community in deep emotional turmoil.

Many events that the population of Zimbabwe have experienced may be described as horrific by onlookers.

However, we continue to push the notion of strength and resilience with no recourse in addressing these traumatic events.

Zimbabweans need conversations that can help them heal from a traumatic past which has not only manifested in violent killings, but also social hostility and mistrust among the population.

Grieving communities experience high levels of social inequality and social injustice as there is physical deterioration of the family unit and communities.

These are also characterised by lack of institutional support such as social services and appropriate policies, thereby creating conducive environments for delinquent behaviours.

Communities in grief place their individual members at risk of developing serious mental health challenges as explained below

Psychological shift to the dark triad

The murderous behaviour of the machete gangs can, at best, be considered as adaptive, from the gang’s perspective, although the society at large views it as anti-social.

The harsh and unpredictable environment, like the one Zimbabwe has consistently experienced over the past 22 years — when the economic challenges manifested — has led some people to develop dark triad traits of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

From the ages of most machete gang members, it is indicative that they were born during such times or spent their early childhood living in such environments.

In harsh and unpredictable environments, people adopt a present orientation by becoming more vigilant, impulsive and placing less value on the future.

Due to the socio-ecological cues of resource scarcity and perceived low socio-economic status, people undergo a psychological shift exhibiting poor self-control, dis-inhibition of impulses and focusing on the here and now without thinking about the future and consequences of their behaviour in the “uncertain future” as they perceive it.

Evidence also indicates that even people in supportive environments shift to a present orientation when subjected to cues of environmental instability.

The dark triad personality traits can be best described as consisting of narcissism (vanity and self-centredness), Machiavellianism (manipulation and cynicism) and psychopathy (antisocial and amorality).

From an evolutionary adaptionist psychology perspective, these traits may be functional in given contexts especially in harsh and unstable environments that illegal gold miners find themselves in.

Given the overwhelming evidence that the dark triad traits are heritable, the gene X environment interaction suggests that these traits are context-sensitive to socio-ecological stress.

The harsher the environment the more opportunity for these personality traits to manifest themselves.

In addition, evidence points to the self-selection hypothesis that individuals who possess such traits tend to gravitate towards environments where they find expression such as the illegal gold panning.

From an evolution psychology perspective, these dark triad traits are theorised to be adaptive responses to a harsh and unpredictable environment in childhood giving rise to adult personality.

The unpredictability of one’s environment increases mortality salience, future discounting, short-term mating strategies, and risk-taking.

Given the above submission, it is not surprising that machete gangs find it easy to engage in murderous acts to get what they want.

 Noreen Wini-Dari and Douglas Zvomuya are psychologists and full members of the Zimbabwe Psychological Association (ZPA). They wrote this article for The Sunday Mail in their personal capacities.