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SEEN UP NORTH – Mental health his priority

Tony Best

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At heart, Dr Lawrence Corbin is a mental health therapist.
But he is more than that. The Barbadian who was recently awarded a doctorate in public health by Australia’s Charles Sturt University has become an expert on violence in mental institutions and how to minimize it, save lives and reduce serious injury.
“There is a long history of violence in mental institutions; much of it goes unreported,” said Corbin. He is a senior case manager in a network of clinics which forms part of a sprawling healthcare organization in British Columbia that treats as many as 10 000 patients suffering from a range of mental health problems, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and suicidal tendencies.
“For people working in mental health institutions, violence it is an occupational hazard,” he said.
“Threats and physical aggression that may even include a gun or a knife are commonplace. My research into this aspect of care indicates it is widespread and the system expects you as a nurse, aide, psychiatrist, case manager, to be able to deal with it.”
Little wonder then that the nurse turned therapist, who received his initial training in England before going first to Alberta in Canada and finally settling in Vancouver, described mental health nursing as a “very dangerous occupation” and the people who provide care, whether in England, Barbados, Canada, the United States or Timbuktu, as professionals whose security needs should receive more attention.
“Several professionals – psychiatrists, nurses, therapists, aides and others – are killed annually in different parts of the world,” he said.
“Indeed, providing health care generally can be dangerous. Ask nurses at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, which isn’t a mental hospital, about the verbal outbursts or the threats and you would be shocked at what they report. I am really concerned about worker safety and the need to prevent people from becoming a statistic.”
When Corbin went to England in 1968, shortly after leaving Coleridge & Parry School and working briefly at the Ministry of Agriculture, he planned to become a nurse. This was not the usual route for a youth with City & Guilds certificates that could have led to a career in mechanical engineering. But once in London, he entered nursing schools, successfully completing training as a registered general nurse and a mental health nurse as well. But with dreams of moving up the health care professional ladder, Corbin turned to the University of East London, eventually graduating with an honours degree in health studies.
“It became clear that Canada offered brighter prospects for professional advancement and I decided to go there,” he recalled. “I went to Alberta, settling first in Edmonton and working in mental health nursing in 1991.”
But the education bug, if you will, that was first implanted at Speighstown Boys’ School in St Peter, developed at Coleridge & Parry and took firmer root in England, blossomed even more in Canada.
He decided to pursue higher education qualifications at recognized tertiary level institutions that offer a mix of distant learning via the Internet, teleconferencing, in-school instruction, advice from professors and taking exams in classroom settings that are thousands of miles away from the main university campus.
First, he earned a Master’s degree in health services management from Charles Sturt University and followed it with an extensive course of study, research, exams and a dissertation, all in the psychological, biological and sociological causes of patient violence. His reward the other day was a doctorate.
Charles Sturt University prides itself on providing a range of 400 courses to 33 000 students scattered around the world. A key specialty is distance education.
Corbin had become a voice for safety precautions for health care employees who have to deal every day with patients who can suddenly become a “powder keg” that would explode in violence, often without provocation.
“Professionals must provide care to people who may be drug abusers, have a history of family violence,
a pattern of anti-social behaviour, may have been incarcerated or are simply destitute and living in extremely poor housing conditions,” he said.
“They can become violent, if they feel you are not helping them.”
That’s why the Barbadian wants governments to pay more attention to security arrangements – guards, furniture, metal detectors, alarms and objects which can be used as lethal weapons, such knives, forks and scissors that are in easy reach of troubled patients.
“We must be prepared at all times for outbursts and trouble,” he advised.