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Leading experts appeal for an energetic and sustained response to childhood trauma during and beyond the pandemic

Today, a new and independent expert body, the UK Trauma Council (UKTC), launches with an appeal for an energetic and sustained response to childhood trauma. Its launch is timely, in light of increasing evidence of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown on child mental health.

The UKTC brings together 22 leading experts in research, policy and practice from all four nations of the UK, making it a unique multi-disciplinary group which will drive positive change in the care and support provided to children and young people who have been exposed to different forms of traumatic event – including single incidents, as well as abuse and neglect. It will empower professionals and local communities in supporting children and young people. It is hosted and supported by the Anna Freud Centre.

In ‘Beyond the pandemic: Strategic priorities for responding to childhood trauma’, published today, the UKTC identifies three ways in which the pandemic is impacting on the experience of childhood trauma:

  • It increases the risk that more children will be exposed to trauma, including through sudden bereavement or exposure to domestic violence;
  • It increases the likelihood that those with prior experiences of trauma (for example, because of abuse) will experience significant difficulties; and
  • It compromises the ability of adults and professional systems to identify a struggling child and mitigate the impact of trauma, including mental health problems.

The UKTC explains that the consequences for those affected may be profound and lifelong, unless there are clear UK-wide responses which seek to support children and young people. Professor Eamon McCrory, Co-Director of the UKTC, says: “Across the UK, there exists enormous expertise about what support children need following experiences of trauma, but we do not always make best use of it. The UK Trauma Council will harness this expertise and help others learn from it. Perhaps never before has there been such a pressing need for collaboration across communities, professionals and services at national and local levels, in the interests of children and young people.”

David Trickey, Co-Director of the UKTC, adds: “None of us has escaped the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, but some have been more affected than others. For many children and young people, particularly those who have lived through previous trauma, the pandemic represents a series of potentially traumatic events. We should be in no doubt that this could have far-reaching consequences for their lives unless appropriate evidence based help is available. We are seeing an increased need for services, and there is a need for a new energy in supporting children if we are to successfully mitigate against the impact of the pandemic.”

The UKTC makes four recommendations in response to the pandemic, which it addresses to government departments, professional bodies, and those developing policy and practice. These are to:

  1. Prioritise responding to trauma in national and local strategies;
  2. Invest in specialist trauma provision for children and young people;
  3. Equip all professionals who work with children and young people with the skills and capacity to support those who have experienced trauma;
  4. Shift models of help towards prevention, through research, clinical innovation and training.

Each recommendation is followed by suggested steps to be taken to achieve it, often focusing on the need for increased collaboration and the harnessing of existing expertise. With examples of specialist expertise and ground-breaking work emerging across the four nations, the UKTC will provide a platform for this to be more fully utilised than at present.

Dr Sandra Ferguson, UK Trauma Council member in Scotland, says: “I am delighted to see the official launch of the UK Trauma Council with its focus across the four nations on children and young people who are affected by trauma, particularly during these unprecedented times. The UKTC gives the opportunity for us in Scotland to work together with colleagues in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to best meet the shared ambition of a world which nurtures and protects children and young people following trauma. We will build understanding of how to reduce the impact of traumatic events, using the best evidence available and with the voices of young people themselves central.”

Dr Dave Williams, UK Trauma Council member in Wales, says: “As we become increasingly aware of the impact of traumatic events on the development and wellbeing of children and young people, it is vital we learn how to support and treat those affected by trauma – if indeed we are unable to prevent it. The UK Trauma Council provides the opportunity to do this at pace, bringing together learning and expertise across the UK, and building on the excellent emerging practice in each of the nations.”

Michael Duffy, UK Trauma Council member in Northern Ireland, says: “In Northern Ireland, there is greater recognition of the need for policy and practice across children’s services which is informed by what we now know about the impact of trauma. The UK Trauma Council will provide an important source of evidence and expertise to guide these new developments in children’s services. I am delighted to be part of its launch today.”

The UKTC has also developed a cutting-edge set of resources, translating the latest neuroscience findings in the field of trauma so they are easily accessible to frontline professionals. Also launched today, the ‘Childhood Trauma and the Brain’ portfolio highlights the growing evidence base, including via neuroscience, that resilience is possible. Professor Eamon McCrory explains: “While the brain changes triggered by trauma can make it harder for a child to navigate and cope with everyday challenges, increasing the risk of mental health problems in the future, recovery is possible. We now know their brains adapt to help them cope. Relationships play a key role in that recovery, as they directly influence how the brain grows and develops. So parents, carers and professionals have a crucial role to play in promoting resilience. These relationships are at the heart of what drives positive change.”

Aside from the current pandemic, research suggests that one in three young people is exposed to traumatic events by age 18 in England and Wales, and approximately one-third of all mental health problems are associated with exposure to childhood trauma and adversity. Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events in childhood can have particularly devastating consequences. They are associated with adaptations in brain structure and function, and impact a child or young person’s cognitive, emotional and social development. Childhood trauma is associated with increased risk of later mental health problems, difficulties in personal and social relationships, as well as increased risk of new stressful experiences, including repeated abuse.