It is the experiences we find hardest to talk about in our society that have a lasting impact on mental health and wellbeing. There is clear evidence that children who grow up in the most difficult and complex circumstances – dealing with issues like bereavement, prejudice, domestic violence, drug or alcohol misuse or sexual abuse – are at increased risk of developing mental health problems, becoming suicidal and dying young.
Yet too often these children do not get the support they deserve. Services that work with them can become fixated on what they see as challenging or risky behaviour, even though this behaviour might be a normal response to what they’ve been through. As a result, these services can quickly stigmatise or criminalise young people, rather than help them.
That is why we have published Addressing Adversity, a collection of essays by 47 leading academics, experts and mental health professionals who work with children. The book demonstrates how difficult experiences at a young age can have a profound impact on a child’s brain development, on their understanding of the world and on how they interact with those around them.
It also offers a vision for how things can be improved. All professionals who work with children – including teachers, NHS workers, social workers and police – should have training about the effects of trauma on behaviour and a clear framework for how and when to ask about traumatic experiences.
All local health commissioners should look to introduce trauma-informed models of care, so that services give effective support to young people who might have been through traumatic experiences without re-traumatising them or making them feel in danger.
Trauma-informed care involves listening to young people and understanding their situation and their needs. That could mean street triage with gang members rather than asking them to come for an appointment at the GP surgery. It could mean that if a child who experiences violence at home starts self-harming, they are able to go to a quiet drop-in centre rather than sit for hours in a potentially triggering environment like A&E.
Every child deserves the chance to make the most of their life, regardless of the circumstances in which they grow up. By intervening early and offering the right support in the right place, at the right time, we can make a huge difference.
There are some fantastic examples of trauma-informed services around the country, but we urgently need to see a more consistent approach. That is why, if the government is serious about tackling the mental health crisis, it must make childhood adversity and trauma a public health priority.
Find out more about Addressing Adversity on the YoungMinds website.