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The need to consider trauma informed approaches in college settings - Jo Maher

01 June 2022

Globally, the last two years have been dominated for many of us by uncertainty, health concerns, fear about the future, and financial worries. From the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, to cases of institutional racism and growing inequality hitting the headlines and war in Eastern Europe, the toll on mental health globally is something public health and education systems are increasingly dealing with on a huge scale. The cost of mental ill health from an economic standpoint runs into the billions, but the individual cost and emotional toll is one that we cannot quantify and we must work collectively to reduce.

Clinical psychologist Phil Johnson describes that regularly reported issues among the young people we encounter include loneliness and social isolation, during a period when self-identity is being more defined, and expressed. Experiences of bullying, loss, dysfunctional attachment, humiliation, perfectionism, lost performance, disturbed sleeping patterns, and constant worry, are debilitating and affect every aspect of life, not simply education. Much of these presentations have a subconscious element, that when triggered in current situations give rise to disproportionate responses, which are historically based. Seeking to understand the current contexts in which historical experiences show themselves, enables them to be effectively resolved, not simply in the here and now, but for the rest of learners’ adult lives.

Trauma can be defined as any experience in which a person’s internal resources are not adequate to cope with external stressors (Hoch, Stewart, Webb, & Wyandt-Hiebert, 2015). Davidson (2017) describes how some traumatic experiences occur once in a lifetime, and others are ongoing. Furthermore, many people have experienced multiple traumas, and for far too many, trauma is a chronic part of their lives. The impact of trauma for a student arriving at a further education college in England is complex, because we have to consider the effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs - potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years), including experiences of violence, abuse, or neglect, witnessing violence in the home or community, or having a family member attempt or die by suicide.

Adverse childhood experiences are a leading determinant of the most common forms of physical illness (e.g. cancer, diabetes, heart attacks) mental illness (e.g. depression and anxiety) and early death in the western world, as well as of homelessness, drug and alcohol addition, smoking, domestic violence and all the major societal ills. A study by the Greater London Authority found that around half of Londoners are likely to have experienced at least one form of adverse experience in their childhood. Around 10 per cent of Londoners are likely to have experienced four or more different types of adversity, likely to include abuse or neglect (Bullock, 2019).

Davidson (2017) in the US context, describes how “all students face challenges as they transition into college, but it can be all the more difficult for those who arrive on campus with a history of trauma. Additionally, college students are at higher risk of experiencing new trauma, including sexual assault, than members of the general public. Trauma increases susceptibility to depression and substance abuse, making it a pressing concern for campus mental health and student services professionals.”

So colleges need to be proactive in this space. Over the past 35 years, researchers have built a strong evidence base for trauma-informed approaches. In the UK, Trauma Informed Schools UK (TISUK) is in an organisation committed to improving the health and wellbeing and ability to learn of the most vulnerable schoolchildren in the UK, namely those who have suffered trauma, abuse, neglect and/or have mental health problems or attachment issues. Given the stark rise in mental health referrals across further education and the fact that a large number of students join us at age 16, Loughborough College is working with TISUK in order to become a trauma informed college.

Our aim is support our students who suffer with trauma or mental health problems and whose troubled behaviour acts as a barrier to learning. We will deliver training for senior leaders and wider college staff to support the understanding of how trauma and mental health informed organisations can save time, money, improve behaviour and learning, lower exclusions and reduce staff absence.

The senior team at Loughborough College are also being taken through training which aims to positively impact on students, staff and the whole college community, moving towards developing a mentally healthy culture for all.

Crucially, the approach is designed to support the whole organisation’s implementation of trauma-informed and mentally healthy practices. It will empower college staff to understand the needs of all children and teenagers, including those who have suffered a trauma or have a mental health issue. Delegates will also learn what happens in trauma and mental health informed colleges in terms of key relational approaches and interventions to positively impact the whole college culture.

A statement from TISUK said this year that “the last two years have had a significant impact on all of our young people and on the staff in schools and colleges who support them”. “Stressful and painful life events in the absence of someone who can help make sense of the experience, changes the physiology of the young person, leaving them vulnerable to mental and physical health difficulties in the future,” the statement goes on to say, adding that “trauma informed approaches embedded in the everyday business of schools and colleges, support young people to recover and buffer the impact of these events.” This is where colleges can step up together – and we at Loughborough are already playing our part.

I am excited about our work with TISUK and hope that this is the start of a sector movement to lead with empathy, to consider how we shape our environments and cultures for the benefit of our learners, staff and community.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.