• A trauma-informed approach to supporting mental health in schools

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    Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health (CCMH), discusses the need for Trauma Informed training in schools to support the increasing number of children and young people in crisis…

    With the continuing concerns over the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health, and an increase of 134% in referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) between April and June this year compared to the same period in 20201, there is an urgent need for schools to be equipped to not only support academic success but also mental wellbeing.

    Teachers have become a mental health frontline service – with an average of 2600 days spent in school – some of the longest and most important relationships children and young people have outside their family and friends are with teachers and staff. This places teachers and other staff members in the perfect position to have a positive impact on their students’ mental health.

    At present many schools approach mental illness in one of two ways; they ‘identify the mental health symptoms and refer’, or encourage students to ‘learn to manage their own feelings and be resilient’ as part of the PSHE curriculum.

    With the incredibly long waiting lists for referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and the service itself at breaking point, the first approach means that many students in emotional pain fall through the net or cannot get the support they need, and are left at risk of long term mental illness.

    Secondly, all too many students have little or no connection to PSHE curricula as the materials do not reflect painful situations in real life, and the approaches are ‘patronising’ or ‘boring’, so the materials used do not speak to them. Suggested solutions for dealing with anxiety or depression such as: doing some breathing; getting a good night’s sleep; jogging or going for a walk are now recognised as cruel optimism – as they do not ease the pain. This adds feelings of hopelessness and failure to the crisis – ‘that was supposed to work, why didn’t it work for me?’

    So many young people want to make sense of what has happened to them and to understand why they are feeling as they are. Without finding answers in school and with increasing feelings of isolation, they are at risk of finding other answers – such as self-harm sites on social media or anti-anxiety drugs for sale on the internet.

    We can help them. Research shows that just one empathic member of school staff who checks-in regularly with a young person in emotional pain, can interrupt the trajectory from unprocessed painful life experiences to long term mental illness. Good listening, mental state talk, helping to put feelings into words, empathy, in the context of an ongoing trusted relationship, these are the evidence-based tools proven to alleviate the mental distress of  students. All the more so if the school environment meets their psychological needs to feel safe, and that they belong and are valued.

    Neuroscience research illustrates the effects of reflective conversations with a trusted adult  on our physiology – stress levels are reduced, natural opioids and oxytocin (wellbeing neurochemicals) are released and we feel better. In one study2, 130,000 people were listened to by a doctor, in a compassionate and accepting non-judgemental way, as they talked about painful childhood experiences. The following year doctors’ appointments reduced by 35% and emergency department visits by 11%.

    That is the power of talking to a good listener, in the context of a relationship with a trusted adult. This does not mean that every teacher needs to be a trained counsellor, it means that schools need to train up those members of staff who are natural emotional nurses. The Government agrees – the Green Paper, ‘Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision’ (Dec 2017)3 states: ‘There is evidence that appropriately-trained and supported staff such as teachers, school nurses, counsellors, and teaching assistants can achieve results comparable to those achieved by trained therapists in delivering a number of interventions addressing mild to moderate mental health problems (such as anxiety, conduct disorder, substance use disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder).’

    Trauma Informed Schools (TISUK) is leading the way in training individual teachers, mental health leads and whole schools, to provide children and young people from age three to post 16 with the support they need to create mentally healthy schools in the ways outlined above. TISUK also partners with the Institute of Education, at Sheffield Hallam University to provide basic trauma informed training for student teachers on all their Teacher Education courses, so the next generation of teachers are starting their careers with the necessary tools to help support their students’ mental health.

    We need a paradigm shift in our education system, we need a holistic view of the whole child rather than a divided one where teachers deal with either academic learning or pastoral care. There is no divide between the thinking brain and the emotional brain and if a young person has experienced trauma, they cannot learn. We owe it to our students to provide support for those facing challenges with their mental health, just as we provide support for those facing academic challenges.

    For more information on Trauma Informed Schools UK (TISUK) please contact www.traumainformedschools.co.uk email: info@traumainformedschools.co.uk

    1 LocalGov.co.uk – Your authority on UK local government – Record number of children referred to mental health services

    2 The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: The Hidden Epidemic LaniusR VermettenE PainC  2008

    3 Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision: a green paper – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

    About Dr Margot Sunderland

    Dr Margot Sunderland is Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health London, CEO of The Higher Education Psychotherapy Training College, The Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education (academic partner of University of East London), Honorary Visiting Fellow at London Metropolitan University, Senior Associate Member of the Royal College of Medicine, and Co-Director of Trauma Informed Schools UK. Dr Sunderland is also a Child Psychotherapist with over thirty years’ experience of working with children and families.

    She is  the author of over twenty books in the field of child mental health, which collectively have been translated into eighteen languages and published in twenty-four countries.  Her internationally acclaimed book, “The Science of Parenting” (Dorling Kindersley) www.dorlingkindersley.co.uk, won First Prize in the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2007 Popular Medicine section. (Paperback version entitled “What Every Parent Needs to Know”). The book, endorsed by one of the world’s leading affective neuroscientists, Professor Jaak Panksepp, is the result of ten years research on the long-term effects of adult-child interaction on the developing brain. Dr Sunderland has two doctorates, one in child psychotherapy, thesis entitled ‘The Application of Art and Science to the Psychological Treatment of Children.’

    Dr Sunderland was a member of the Early Years Commission, Centre for Social Justice, Westminster and co-author of the cross party advisory report “The Next Generation” (Early Years Commission Report). She is also founder of the “Helping Where it Hurts’ programme which offers free arts therapy to troubled children in Islington Primary schools. She directed the Gulbenkian funded research study, which in liaison with the University of Cambridge School of Education, measured outcomes for this intervention. Dr Sunderland makes TV and radio appearances as a child and parenting expert. Overall, she is concerned to ensure that parents, teachers and mental health professionals alike, are offered the most up to date psychological and brain science research on how children and young people can be enabled to thrive. She is passionate about social change for a kinder, warmer world.


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