Tackling trauma

Work with Offenders looks at the growing acknowledgement of the importance of trauma-informed work

Over the last decade, there’s been a growing awareness about how many people are affected by trauma. People caught up in the criminal justice system are particularly likely to have suffered a range of traumatic experiences – ranging from emotional, physical and sexual abuse, to neglect, bullying, violence, bereavement and abandonment.

Studies of trauma among groups of young people found that:

  • 91% of violent young offenders have experienced abuse or loss
  • 40% of female and 25% of male young people in custody have suffered violence at home
  • 33% of female offenders have suffered sexual abuse

Research also indicates that offenders are more likely than non-offenders to have suffered adverse effects from traumatic experiences, which appear to be linked to offending behaviour.

Trauma can have a very wide range of impacts, with these impacts also being mediated by a number of key factors including the type of event that gave rise to the trauma, previous experience of traumatic events, individual resilience, the degree of support that an individual has, and the socio-economic context in which the individual lives. Because of wide variations in terms of these factors and their presence in individual cases, similar events can have widely varying impacts on different individuals.

In terms of development, trauma can have adverse effects on socialisation and also on the individual’s scope for forming relationships or attachments. These adverse effects are multiplied or compounded where traumatic events have been chronic or ongoing, and where they are interpersonal in nature.

Aside from its immediate negative impact, early child maltreatment interrupts normal child development, especially the processes through which emotions are managed. In order to fully understand the impact of trauma upon children and young people, it is important to consider their developmental process and how this is damaged by their experiences.

Adolescents’ key developmental tasks include being able to:

  • Learn to think abstractly
  • Anticipate and consider the consequences of behaviour
  • Accurately judge danger and safety
  • Modify and control behaviour to meet long-term goals

Trauma can impact upon adolescents by making them:

  • Exhibit reckless, self-destructive behaviour
  • Experience inappropriate aggression
  • Over- or underestimate danger
  • Struggle to imagine/plan for the future

Trauma is also associated with difficulties concerning memory and dissociation, where traumatised individuals distance themselves psychologically from experience that is perceived to be overwhelming and too difficult to process or resolve.

In terms of behaviour, trauma is strongly associated with a range of ‘problematic behaviours’ including aggression and violence, antisocial/criminal behaviour, sex offending, gambling, and substance misuse. Traumatic experience is found disproportionately in the backgrounds of individuals who engage in such behaviour, and such experience also increases the likelihood that individuals will suffer from particular mental health difficulties including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and more generally, from anxiety and stress, and perceptions of low self-worth.

One of the key learning points over the last decade is that the experience of imprisonment can itself have a traumatising effect on young people, reawakening earlier experiences of trauma and, in effect, re-traumatising them.

Last month the Centre for Mental Health and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, published a joint report into trauma-informed approaches for women. The report, A sense of safety (available here), found that over 1 million women in England alone have experienced extensive violence and abuse as both a child and adult. The report found that too often these women struggle to get the help they need from services which fail to understand the impact of this trauma.