As the world watches Calais, how to build children’s resilience to trauma

Professor of child mental health at the University of Leicester, Panos Vostanis, set up a global network to build resilience in some of the world’s most vulnerable children. He describes his current project, a tour of six continents in six weeks to support young people traumatised by poverty and conflict

In any society, about one in 10 children suffers from mental health problems. This rate can rise to 40 per cent or higher if children are traumatised by abuse or neglect, war, being raised in care, or homelessness. Child trauma often persists into later life and, despite growing awareness of the impact it can cause, stigma around mental health continues to hinder progress. Many countries do not have child mental health policies or services while others lack the legal framework for protecting children most in need.

We are getting closer to understanding how best to support the world’s most vulnerable children. The World Awareness for Children in Trauma programme was borne out of the belief that there is always hope. In a collaboration between schools, universities and NGOs in 12 countries, we are building awareness, growing networks and delivering training to help communities to help their children.

The goal of visiting six continents in six weeks is to make environments such as orphanages and refugee camps safer and more child-centred. We want to help caregivers develop more nurturing styles and boost children’s self-esteem through education, sports and art. We will also set up individual and group strategies for children and carers most affected by trauma.

We want to help develop more nurturing styles and boost children’s self-esteem through education, sports and art

In Nakuru, Kenya, we are working to get young victims of ethnic displacement, now living in extreme poverty, back to school. After losing her father to ethnic-related violence when she was young, 15-year-old Mercy grew up in the Nakuru slums, and lacked funds for school fees. We worked with the Friendly Action Network, a charity that supports families affected by conflict, and Mwariki Secondary School to secure a full scholarship for Mercy to attend school. In September, she told us how much she was enjoying it.

“I am learning a lot of inspiring life skills,” she told us. “I did well in my exams last term, and am working hard to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor. I want to save people’s lives.”

We also work with parents and teachers to create group support for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress, anxiety or depression, with the aim of encouraging the children to recognise and help manage each other’s symptoms.

Trauma-focused interventions help children understand how their experiences are linked with how they feel, think and behave, before looking at strategies to change them. We then use talking, play, writing and various creative activities, such as drawing and music, to help create new thinking and behaviour patterns.

Thanks to advances in research, we now have a better idea of the factors that place these children at risk, and how their parents’ mental health and capacity to care for them impacts on their wellbeing. There is less evidence on what protects children in the face of trauma, but our knowledge is growing, and our direct experiences have informed ways of helping in even the most difficult life circumstances.

Trauma-focused interventions help children understand how their experiences are linked with how they feel, think and behave

We now think about children’s resilience on several interlinked levels: individually, within their family, school and the community. This generally means that we can support children in at least one of these levels, even in the face of extreme adversity.

During this trip, we will support homeless young people in the US, disadvantaged indigenous children in Australia, refugee children in Greece, street and refugee children in Turkey, those in favelas in Brazil, and orphans in Pakistan and Indonesia. These places were selected to represent different groups of the most traumatised children globally, linking with charities and existing partnerships wherever possible.

Alongside seminars we will host hands-on arts and sports events, adapting the programmes depending on children’s circumstances. Ultimately, we aim to create guidelines for tackling mental health needs in a range of scenarios, including post-conflict situations.

If such guidelines were in place, the notorious reception centres and camps throughout Europe, such as in Calais, could be more child-centred and far less damaging. Staff could be trained in understanding and recognising children’s needs, and tailored programmes could ensure children had every chance of recovery.

Panos Vostanis is professor of child mental health at the University of Leicester. Follow his journey here

Main image: Eoghan Rice/Trócaire