Fighting a culture of violence

The groundbreaking new project in which doctors and dentists are educating schoolchildren on the horrors of knife crime

DAY AFTER DAY they see the shocking damage that can be inflicted on the human body by a knife attack.

Thousands of victims of violent assaults pass through UK emergency departments every year and, in many cases, it is the job of oral surgeons to stitch them up and send them home. It is a cycle that must sometimes seem as hopeless as it is endless.

But one group of surgeons has made a bold move to stop this culture of violence in its tracks with a groundbreaking project using volunteer doctors and dentists to reach out to schoolchildren.

Medics Against Violence is a registered charity that aims to end the cycle of violence before it begins by educating young people about the dangers of knife carrying. It was founded in 2008 by leading oral surgeon Christine Goodall of Glasgow University’s dental school and maxillofacial consultants Mark Devlin and David Koppel from Glasgow’s Southern General hospital.

Disheartened

Their motivation for creating the programme is clear. They are pushed to the limit working in oral and maxillofacial surgery in Glasgow – a city which boasts the unenviable title of the most violent in Europe.

Last year, 1170 victims of knife crime were admitted to Scottish hospitals at a cost to the NHS of more than £500million. Goodall and her Glasgow colleagues treat someone with a facial injury every six hours. Of those, 70 per cent have been attacked by a bladed weapon and 80 per cent have been drinking to excess.

Goodall says: “We started it because we were so fed up seeing so many young people coming into hospital injured. I have worked for many years in maxillo-facial surgery and we have stitched them up and sent them home but have done nothing to address the problem.

“We were getting so disheartened by the number of young people coming in that we thought it would be a good thing to try to stop it in the first place. Some of the injuries you see are horrific and they have a big effect on people’s lives and on their confidence. Over the years, I’ve often thought this must be preventable.”

Faced with this daily onslaught, the surgeons teamed up with Strathclyde Police’s Violence Reduction Unit and constructed an educational programme especially aimed at 14 and 15-year-olds. The programme has been praised by schools and there are already plans to expand it.

Reaching out

During the sessions, pupils are shown a hard-hitting 15-minute film which features stories from three people – a young murderer, a mum whose son was murdered and Scott Breslin who was paralysed from the neck down after being stabbed at the age of 16. It also includes some graphic images of stab wounds and CCTV footage of violent attacks.

Afterwards, the volunteer doctors and dentists discuss the main issues with the pupils and pose questions such as: “Is there a safe place to be stabbed?”

Goodall says: “It’s interesting what attitudes emerge from the children. Quite a few of them will say they think it’s safe to stab someone in the buttocks, for example, but we explain to them how you can still bleed to death from an injury like that because there’s a big artery in that area. It’s a lot about myth-busting. The children watch these films in the cinema where people get stabbed or beaten to a pulp and keep on getting up so a lot of them might think it’s not that dangerous to stab someone in a particular place, which is simply not true.

“We worked with an educationalist on the lesson plan because we wanted it to be easy for people to take out and present. The film does most of the storytelling, rather than us standing up and making up stories.”

She says the story of wheelchair-bound Scott Breslin has particular resonance with pupils. “They can really identify with him. Young people often don’t understand the consequences of what they are doing. They think they are invincible. We wanted them to see something of what we see every day.”

Medics Against Violence, or MAV, was set up in November 2008 with an £80,000 grant from the Scottish Government. So far, volunteers have spoken to more than 4000 schoolchildren across the west of Scotland.

Expansion

Many of the schools visited by MAV and its army of 120 volunteers are in areas with a known gang problem where the young pupils may already be carrying knives. While most visits have been carried out across the west of Scotland, Goodall hopes to expand the project across the country. There are already volunteers in Ayrshire and the service is about to open in Dundee.

Co-founder Mark Devlin, a consultant cleft and maxillofacial surgeon, also features in the MAV video. He recalls treating four school friends who were the victims of knife attacks. He says: “We came from a similar background but I had a mum and dad who wanted something more for me. All the doctors come from different backgrounds and the children at the schools will be from different backgrounds but there is only one message – that they can make a choice."

A similar project – the Knife Crime Prevention programme – was announced by the Home Office in November 2009 and will run in several counties across England. It follows a similar approach to MAV and will see doctors and nurses collecting photographic evidence of knife injuries. These will then be shown to young people convicted of knife possession. Victims of knife crime and ex-criminals who have turned their lives around will also be drafted in to speak to young offenders.

But Medics Against Violence leads the way amongst the medical and dental community for its unique approach to tackling violence. It has already attracted the help of specialists from fields as diverse as emergency medicine, psychiatry, anaesthesia, oncology and even palliative care.

Volunteers

But Goodall is hoping to recruit even more medics, including GPs, junior doctors and trainee dentists. She says: “We are relying on people volunteering, which is very hard because everyone is so busy. We have a lot of people who go out time and again, but we are hoping to attract more doctors and dentists.”

One volunteer is Dr Yvonne Moulds, a specialist registrar in emergency medicine. She says: “The school I visited was in a very deprived area and I was shocked by how much exposure some of the second year pupils had to knife carrying and gang culture in the local area. I told them how I had seen children not much older than them die from knife wounds and I think that got their attention. It was a really worthwhile visit and the kids shared a lot with us that surprised even their class teacher. By the end of it, a good number of them seemed to take our message on board and started really thinking about the choices they could make in life.”

MAV has high hopes for the future. Goodall and her co-founders have already been honoured with a gong at the Scottish Policing Awards for their efforts in tackling crime through the innovative scheme. She now hopes to expand MAV’s remit by tackling domestic violence by enlisting the help of medics to raise the subject with people they think might have been affected.

Despite the challenges ahead, Goodall is optimistic, saying: “We wanted to try to make a difference and I think we are doing something good that has the potential to change lives for the better.” For more information, visit www.medicsagainstviolence.co.uk

Joanne Curran is associate editor of FYi magazine