Sharing insight about childhood trauma from around the world

Professor Panos Vostanis has developed a new internet platform WACIT – World Awareness for Children in Trauma – as a resource for sharing knowledge and best practices in supporting children

If about one in 10 children, up to the age of 18 suffer from mental health problems, these statistics are severely amplified if children have suffered trauma. A recent document published by Postanis Vostanis, Professor of Child Psychiatry at Leicester University suggests that, ‘these rates can rise up to 40%, or higher, in the presence of trauma, for example among children raised in care or living in the streets. These children are also more likely to have different types of disability.’ 

The document is highlighting the recently launched WACIT project – the World Awareness for Children in Trauma. It’s partly about raising awareness but it’s also about sharing knowledge and emphasizing a global approach – there are lessons and insights to be learned from people working in communities across the world. WACIT is seeking to be a practical hub for these insights. Professor Vostanis himself has done research in Gaza, in Iran fours years after the Bam earthquake, but also in the UK with homeless children. Indeed, the impact of war on children across the world is increasingly less remote, as refugees seek sanctuary in Europe. As Professor Vostanis himself says, ‘we have worked a lot with refugees. If you look around the area where I am now, this area is full of Afghani boys in hostels.’ 

In the UK, partners include the Anna Freud Centre, the Royal college of Psychiatrists and the Theraplay Institute, while international partners provisionally include centres in Athens, Chicago, Istanbul, Jakarta, Mumbai, Nakuru, Sao Paolo and Sydney. Their specialist areas around issues affecting the mental well-being of children are many and varied, from being homeless, to being victims of ethnic and social conflict, to refugees and orphans.

Support with no networks

Professor Vostanis has been working clinically in the UK for the last 20 years, currently working with children in foster care, in the area of children’s adoption, homeless refugees and offenders. But he was interested in how you could deal with such issues in countries who didn’t have well-established support networks and systems, and he has been conducting research himself across the world. 

In terms of war for example, whose impact on communities and children we increasingly see filling our news bulletins, Professor Vostanis breaks down the impact of trauma on children, from immediate experience to the way it effects the child via the wider community. ‘These traumatic events, impact on children in different and inter-related ways,’ explains Professor Postanis. ‘a) Directly by experiencing violence of different kinds. b) Indirectly through the impact of violence on their parents. c) How the impact on communities and different types of loss affect both parents and children. d) The aftermath of the conflict though lack of basic needs, disruption of community supports, resulting poverty, displacement…’ The latter is especially problematic because in ongoing conflicts communities fracture and collapse. 

So WACIT emerged from Professor Vostanis asking himself, ‘How can I experiment to develop not a prescriptive approach but more of a model for psycho-social support in various circumstances?’ The seeds were actually planted many years ago through British Council funding to go to three Indian cities to develop interest in child mental care (and as a young student in Athens he attended British Council language classes). He positions his approach as being driven by an ecological framework, which he says has four levels:

‘Community (by strengthening collective resilience, community activities); School (education, sport, psychosocial interventions); Family (supporting parents, nurturing interventions) Child (for a minority as resources allow to provide counselling or other psychological interventions in small or large groups for cost-effective purposes).’ What’s crucial with all of these is working with Non-Governmental Organisations. 

Resilience

One of the buzzwords around discussions of cities and communities over the last while is resilience, what is its role in addressing children’s trauma and mental health issues? Is it a recent idea? ‘Resilience is a relatively old concept,’ explains Professor Vostanis, ‘I recall similar discussions 20 years ago, but it has become increasingly popular during the last five years, as there is more emphasis on promoting strengths in people and communities rather than treating problems (but also within the latter group with problems as preventive strategies).’

He has spent a large part of 2015 visiting active child support centres around the globe as a build-up to WACIT. And while Professor Vostanis’s research and clinical experience means some think he will talk to them and provide the answers, he sees his role differently, as being able to ‘pinpoint the resilience’ in areas, seeking the different ‘fragments of good practice and I think if I look back, that is what I have been trying to do – work out these pockets and trying to connect them a bit. That has been my year and I have found some great pockets.’