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17 Feb 2022

New project aims to bring trauma-focussed mental health support to children in care

Young person completing a diary

A new project supported by the NIHR ARC North East and North Cumbria aims to bring NICE recommended trauma-focused mental health care to young people in care.

Young people who have experienced care have much higher rates of mental health difficulties than their peers, and their mental health needs often aren’t addressed, which can lead to a range of issues. They are more likely to be excluded from school and are over-represented in prison and homeless populations. These outcomes aren’t inevitable, and with the right support these young people can thrive.

Young people who have been in care are 12 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than their peers. Cognitive behavioural therapies (CBTs) are talking therapies that help people manage their problems by changing the way they think and behave. Research has shown trauma-focused CBTs (tf-CBTs) could help young people in care who have complex mental health needs.

Trauma focused CBTs are the recommended treatment for PTSD, including when the child has experienced maltreatment. But most young people in care don’t have access to tf-CBTs, deepening the health inequalities they already experience.

This new project is a collaboration led by NIHR ARC West and involving five Applied Research Collaborations, including the NIHR ARC North East and North Cumbria.

Dr Rachel Hiller, Associate Professor in Child Mental Health at University College London, is leading the project.

She said: “Many children and teens in care carry the burden of PTSD. We do have good treatments for this, but symptoms often go undetected and our best evidenced treatments are rarely used. Reasons for this are complex, but our project aims to embrace this complexity and learn, alongside services and young people in care, what needs to happen to increase access to evidence-based treatments, like trauma-focused CBTs.”

Dr Ruth McGovern, Lecturer in Public Health Research at Newcastle University and Deputy Lead for the ARC NENC’s Supporting Children and Families theme, is part of the project team.

She said: “Children and young people in contact with social care services are particularly vulnerable to experiencing mental health problems due to high rates of childhood adversity and trauma. We need effective  interventions to respond to the mental health needs of these children and an understanding of how these interventions work within the real world setting.”

Professor John Macleod, Director of NIHR ARC West, added: “Being a foster carer myself, I have to declare a personal interest in this project, because it’s about making things better for “looked after” kids. Evidence shows that there are few other social groups who experience greater health inequality or have greater need. Much of this need relates to the life-long consequences of early trauma. Evidence based treatments exist but, for many reasons, kids in public care seldom access these. Effective treatment of PTSD may not solve all the complex problems that care experienced young people face, but we hope it will help them have healthier lives.”

Find out more about the project