As Mental Health Awareness Week continues, peer researcher Soph shares how trauma-informed care and connections can support care leavers.
Have you ever felt continuously anxious or fearful, as if the world will end any minute?
Ever dialled a number during a sharp pinch of overwhelming distress, desperate for a kind soul to answer the phone? Or perhaps you haven’t experienced those things, but know the discomfort when painful memories strike you with a dizzying punch to the chest?
These are just a few things I experience as a care leaver, with an anxiety-based mental health condition known as Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), and dissociation.
Since Autumn 2022 I have been working as a peer researcher – someone with lived experience of the topic being researched – with the McPin Foundation and What Works for Early Intervention Children’s Social Care.
We are trying to understand care leavers’ experiences of support for their mental health and wellbeing. Judging by conversations with other care leavers over the years, I’m not the only one to experience mental health challenges.
As a child I endured significant trauma until I went into care at the age of 14. Being in care was hugely beneficial for my physical health and social life, but often my unrelenting need for affection and nurture wasn’t met.
Eventually, I confined my needs to a locked dungeon in my mind. I focussed on academics and anything else that allowed me to survive my predicament.
When I left care I regularly experienced distress, but I’d push it to one side or disconnect from it. Then, at the age of 21, something slammed the brakes.
My emotional pain broke out of the dungeon in a string of serious crises. The lasting effects of trauma were in full swing.
One day, after a cascade of horrific nightmares, I did my own research and found the diagnostic criteria for CPTSD. It fit everything I had experienced so well that I asked for an assessment.
Unbeknownst to me, I would eventually access treatment and begin a major journey to healing.
CPTSD involves a whole-body response to trauma...paired with a relentless whole-body campaign to prevent trauma happening again.
The lasting effects of trauma
We call CPTSD a mental health condition. However, I don’t consider it a ‘brain-gone-haywire’ situation.
I’ve learned that it makes sense – and it involves much more than just the brain. CPTSD involves a whole-body response to trauma that has happened. It’s paired with a relentless whole-body campaign to prevent trauma happening again.
Traumatic memories get frozen in time and are relived. Dissociation and attachment difficulties from childhood show up in the present. All the above manifest deeply in the body, contributing to chronic physical health conditions.
There’s a lot I’ve left out here as there are just not enough words. If I explained everything I’ve learned, this blog would be five times as long!
Treating trauma and training services
After having these experiences, I believe that basic training in developmental trauma and dissociation is essential for any professional supporting care leavers.
My view comes from a personal observation; the mechanics of trauma and dissociation don’t appear to be widely known, but they are deeply relevant for people who have faced childhood adversity.
I strongly believe trauma-informed education could help services to understand care leavers’ emotional needs better.
It also could help care leavers to feel connected to and heard. I believe these things because I have experienced them myself at times, and I have also known the strain of not being understood on an emotional level.
Some young people flourish, whilst others traverse this new world of adulthood in survival mode.
Supporting care leavers better
I also believe that it’s important for care leavers to have access to safe, specialist mental health care when they need it, given that they are statistically more likely to develop mental health issues than their peers.
The transition from care to independence can be a really rough road. A young person may face new demands and upheavals with little sense of ‘back up’. Often there is no family home to retreat to, no ‘bank of mum and dad’, no parent to phone when the washing machine has broken down.
Some young people flourish, whilst others traverse this new world of adulthood in survival mode, still reeling from being in care in the first place. Others’ quest for survival is reinforced when worries over money and housing shift into focus.
It’s therefore not surprising that care leavers might struggle with their emotional wellbeing in a variety of ways. At such a crucial time in life, access to mental health care, social connection and safety can make a significant difference.
There is also real value in finding a safe human being to hold space for us – the whole of us – including the parts that are traumatised, upset, or challenging.
Using a peer research approach to open new spaces
Whilst each young person leaving care has their own unique needs, I believe that care leavers can enjoy healthy emotional wellbeing when they have the right support.
I have enjoyed working as a peer researcher with the McPin Foundation and What Works for Early Intervention and Children’s Social Care.
I believe taking a peer research approach can open up spaces for participants to feel safe and heard; they know that the people listening to them, who will go on to analyse their data, can relate to and understand their experience.
Care leavers’ wellbeing is at the heart of the research we are doing, and I hope it will bring the importance of emotional wellbeing to the spotlight.
Overall, I am hopeful that care leavers can lead fulfilling lives, and I believe research like this is key to helping services to support them on their journeys.