Interview with Dr. Mahamed Hashi, MSc BSc Director, Brixton Soup Kitchen, by Dr John Barry, co-founder of the Male Psychology Network
Mahamed Hashi’s dedication to the Lambeth area of South London is not in doubt. When he tried to calm down a fight there in 2008 he was shot and almost killed. In another incident, he was brutally attacked in a knife attack as a result of an attempted robbery. Despite these ordeals and resulting PTSD, his devotion to the people of Lambeth over the years as a tutor, youth worker and councillor has been steadfast, as has been his determination to improve the mental health of the socially disadvantaged young men who drift into gangs and violence.
Pictured: Dr Hashi’s injury in 2008 from a bullet.
Drill music is a type of rap music. ‘Drill’ is slang for ‘machine gun’, and drill is known for it’s diss tracks, where gangs insult each, encouraging retaliatory violence. In part it’s easy to see why some people have blamed the genre for the rising murder rate in London, and even called for drill to be banned.
As a psychologist specialising in Male Psychology, the violence of young men is obviously an issue of concern, so when I saw Dr Hashi give a talk on gang violence at the Men & Boys Coalition (MBC) conference recently, I was all ears and keen to find out more. I invited Dr Hashi for an interview and we met at my hypnotherapy clinic in central London.
Hashi is a big man with a warm nature and infectious though earnest enthusiasm. I started the interview by following up on a couple of things he raised at the MBC conference. Firstly, did he think that unruly behaviour in boys could be remedied by having fathers in the home and more male schoolteachers? His response was that male role models per se do not magically cure anything, but having men around provides an environment in which the behaviour of boys is more understood and therefore less criticised.
Hashi: “My dad died when I was 13, and I went on to achieve things under the guidance of my mother, a single mother. However without role models around, young men can be attacked for their behaviour. For example, a young guy’s masculinity can be interpreted as aggression. It’s difficult for people who are not male to understand what it’s like to be a male”.
The question that most interested me was Dr Hashi’s contention that drill music should be seen as a potentially positive phenomenon, because it is an excellent example of men talking about their feelings rather than bottling them up. This is what many mental health campaigns have been urging men to do for years, but the response to drill has been calls to ban it outright. This situation reminds me of the irony of campaigns (such as Childline’s ‘Tough to Talk’ campaign) urging boys to speak about their feelings, when the reality is that lots of boys sense that nobody really wants to listen:
Hashi: “We have created a society where we are offended by different people expressing themselves in different ways. Unless it’s expressed in an acceptable way, within ‘guidelines of expression,’ its not acceptable. How can we ask young men to express themselves, and then criticise them? At the end of the day there is a culture, whether you call it rap or grime or drill, of young people expressing themselves in a particular way – you are supposed to listen.
One problem is that you can find whatever you are looking for [in the lyrics] – if you are looking for criminality in the music you will find it. But their reality is that criminality, their reality is that trauma, their reality is that pain. If you are offended by their reality that you need to stop listening [to drill] instead of trying to find ways of stopping them from expressing themselves. Not listening puts us in a dangerous position – when they have found a therapeutic way of expressing themselves and we try to stop that, what then?”
Barry: “Catharsis is generally considered a good thing therapeutically. I guess some people would prefer it is they could work out their feelings through Morris dancing”.
Hashi: “…or Salsa”
Barry: “… but that’s not going to do it. If you hit your thumb with a hammer you aren’t going to say ‘oh, bothersome’, you are going to need to swear properly”.
Hashi: “Where are the campaigns for mental health support for these young people? Critics are trying to shut down their method of expression, without even trying to understand it”.
Barry: “Is drill a sufficient way of dealing with these feelings?”
Hashi: “It’s not a sufficient way, but it is a good indication that these young people are trying to deal with these feelings. As a practitioner and youth worker, I listen to drill music to understand what they are going through, and put in support mechanisms for them off the back of that. Drill music is part of the solution and part of repairing themselves. If you take that away… I am really really anxious about what would happen”.
Barry: “If they are not going to do drill, they will do something else”.
Hashi: “100%. Would critics rather that they did the violence without announcing it? Or talking about where it comes from?”
Barry: “If you have an outlet… would boxing or martial arts be an alternative way of channeling-?”
Hashi: “Some people would turn around and say that’s too violent, why would we teach a gang member how to hurt someone professionally? They have arguments for everything. And for me it’s a question of asking where do you want young people to go, what direction?”
Barry: “If we parachuted in a load of counsellors… would they sit down and talk to counsellors?”
Hashi: “100%. But they need to talk to people who come from where they come from. We don’t need counsellors that are so disconnected from their experiences that they sit through their stories in awe, rather than supporting them through therapy. A lot of therapists don’t come from that background, and the young person says ‘someone chased me and shot my friend’ and the counsellor says ‘oh my gosh – does that happen regularly to you?’ I’m not a psychologist, but maybe they could be asked ‘and how did that make you feel?’
We need more mental health first aid training, we need more trauma informed practice already embedded in that person’s life, because the environment they live in is already traumatising – not just their own trauma, but the trauma of others makes the environment of fear that makes it traumatic. We have to change the environment, which means introducing adults who have had those experiences in these environments be part of their lives. But that’s the first thing that gets cut by government – youth services, youth workers – so now we have young people who don’t know the system and have nobody to intercede on their behalf, nobody to talk on their behalf, and explain why they behave in a particular way”.
Barry: “What is the key thing that psychologists can do?”
Hashi: “Easier access, and more empathy. These kids can be quite rude, brash, brazen, but these are just defence mechanisms that often happen when they come across authority figures. These kids often come across adults that want to have dominion over them, purely because of their age, and I think that so disrespectful.” Dr Hashi adds that psychologists should, with their enhanced knowledge of non-verbal communication, be better equipped to recognise the difference between aggression and fear, thus be less intimidated by apparently threatening behaviour.”
One of the lessons of history is that a cease fire gives everyone a chance to calm down, have time to cope, allow the bereavement process to start, and let old wounds heal. However what the boys in Brixton experience is a life where they go from one trauma to another without any opportunity to deal with the pain, leaving them in a vicious cycle of acting out angry feelings. As Dr Hashi points out, these are people who need some time out, and some way of coping.
As psychologists, we need to take his suggestions seriously. Firstly, we might help facilitate more widespread mental health first aid training of people in the community. Secondly, and more challengingly for a largely white, female, and middle class profession, the BPS needs to offer better provision of suitable mental health professionals in the field. Brixton – and places like it all over the UK – needs more black male psychologists, not as part of an academic equality quota scheme, but as an urgent response to a real-world issue. For my part, I know that the newly established Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society will be putting these crucial issues on the agenda for 2019.
About Dr Mahamed Hashi
Dr Hashi also has an MSc in forensic science and an honorary PHD in youth and community work. Dr Hashi is the founder of the Community Champion Award winning Brixton Soup Kitchen, a service for the homeless in the Brixton area. He is also a Labour counsillor in Lambeth’s Stockwell ward in South London. Dr Hashi is involved with many other community groups including leading roles in the Lambeth Safer Neighbourhood Board, the Independent Advisory Group for Lambeth police, and the Community Network Forum. He is co-chair of the Lambeth Stop and Search Monitoring Group, a member of the Black Mental Health Commission in Lambeth, the Lambeth Community Police Consultative Group, the Pan-London Community Monitoring Network, the Independent Custody Visitors group, the Deaths in Custody Panel, and the London Probation Trust Serious Group Offending Forum. He is also involved in a number of police advisory groups including the Territorial Support Community Reference Group, the Special Select Committee for Stop and Search and the Public Order Community Reference Group.