Unmet Needs: a holistic perspective on crime
Putting my trauma educator hat on, I want to talk a little bit about unmet needs, because I am hoping it will expand your perspective.
We have collectively been taught to think of human beings through a binary lens of “good people” and “bad people.” This way of thinking permeates every aspect of our lives, including how we think about crime and the justice system.
There’s a huge disconnect that we have between criminal activity and unmet needs. It’s much easier to just think of criminality as the actions of bad people. So let’s pull the camera back.
When we are children, and we “act up,” the response from many parents is that their child is being unruly, bad or manipulative. In actuality, when a child “acts up,” it most often stems from an unmet need. They are trying to communicate that they are hungry, tired, overwhelmed, overstimulated, hurt, etc.—that a need for food, rest, quiet, attention, soothing, etc. has not been met.
The part where this gets even trickier is that children are also so emotionally connected to their parents and the world around them, that sometimes they are even expressing an unmet need in the parents or society. Meaning that if someone around them is suppressing a lot of feelings, the child takes that in and responds to that energy. Yes, it’s complicated.
So, from a very early age, unmet needs turn into charged responses. And, if that continues long enough, people begin to meet their needs in maladaptive ways. This is how many mental health challenges also develop, including personality disorders like antisocial personality disorder (aka sociopaths). The behaviors—such as lying, coercion and manipulation—are an attempt at meeting needs in what is often a traumatized family system.
Life continues on and if unmet needs also continue, the stakes heighten. And eventually, we might turn to criminal behavior. On top of this, there are people who deliberately target youth who are desperate to get their needs met—whether that’s food and shelter or connection and love (or all of the above). If you’re not getting these needs met in your family of origin, you will be more likely to be pulled into a group where your vulnerability is leveraged to encourage violence or criminal behavior (think gangs, terrorists, etc).
When we approach our communities in a more holistic way, the goal is to meet these needs earlier and earlier in people’s lives. And of course it will take time—maybe even a couple generations—before we see the full impact of this shift. But that’s how change works. It doesn’t always happen immediately. In fact holistic approaches are rarely fast, which is, for example, why people often turn to traditional medicine over holistic wellness. We want to stop the symptoms right now, rather than resolving the core issues that create the symptoms.
But the symptoms run deep and we need systems that get to the core. So, as we move towards what I hope will be a more holistic approach to community safety, keep this all in mind.
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