For Mental Health Awareness Week, Joanna – Safer London’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Specialist – talks about the importance of mental health support for young Londoners and their families affected by violence and exploitation.

In the same way that we need good physical health to progress through our lives in the best way possible, we also need good mental health.

Mental health problems can be incredibly disruptive in all aspects of life, and even young Londoners who aren’t affected by violence or exploitation can have quite a lot to cope with already.

Trying to establish yourself as an adult, perhaps studying, finding a job or deciding on a career can all be very demanding tasks. If you compound these with mental health struggles, it can create an almost impossible situation.

Many of the young Londoners we work with tell us how they’ve experienced traumatic events which many of us couldn’t comprehend. This can range from child sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, peer violence or even witnessing violent death. Many experience complex or cumulative trauma – where they’re exposed to multiple traumatic events throughout their lives.

This can greatly affect their mental health and wellbeing, resulting in a devastating impact and affecting the course of their lives.

The barriers to support

For many young Londoners impacted by violence or exploitation, mental health and wellbeing support is essential for them to be able to grow and heal from their experiences. However, accessing this support can come with many barriers.

There is generally a long wait for mental health services and often the young Londoners – and their families – we work with have had negative experiences with professionals. So can be, understandably, quite mistrusting of services.

Location can also be a big issue. Young Londoners can be at risk of violence and exploitation in certain geographical areas. Therefore, they may not feel safe to access support if it falls in a location that is high risk for them.

Stigma around mental health and illnesses is another barrier. This is why it’s so important to take a relational approach when working with young Londoners. At Safer London our Support Workers build strong and trusting relationships with the young Londoners they work with. It’s through these relationships that trust can start to form and therapeutic healing work can begin to take place. 

A Safer London approach

In my specialist role at Safer London I work with Support Workers to assist them in their discussions with young Londoners around their mental health and wellbeing needs.

This usually includes discussing with Support Workers the young Londoner’s general emotional wellbeing, what might be going on for them currently and trying to understand their behaviours through the lens of their experiences.

Together we develop strategies and interventions to support young Londoners and their families to positively engage in mental health and wellbeing support and services.

Trauma shapes lives

Trauma caused by experiencing often prolonged violence and exploitation permeates every aspect of one’s life. It contributes to the way we think, feel and act.

At Safer London we adopt a trauma responsive approach. This means that our practices and work with young Londoners is informed by an understanding of the effects of trauma that they’ve experienced. We know that trauma not only affects our brains, but also our bodies and our nervous system – it’s psychological and physiological.

Trauma is pervasive and can be complex. How people express the distress and trauma they’ve experienced is highly individual, so we need to keep an open and curious mind when working with a young Londoner affected by violence or exploitation.

It’s really important to understand that the behaviours we see are actually psychological, social, emotional and behavioural adaptations, which were, at the time, the young person’s best available chance of surviving. This knowledge and understanding forms the building blocks of our support.

Everyone deserves to have a sense of ‘wellbeing’; to feel fulfilment and contentment.

It’s vital that as professionals we all understand the importance of good mental wellbeing and the impact trauma has on the development of a young Londoner’s lives. 

Even when a young Londoner is physically safe from the situation in which they experienced violence or exploitation, the impact it has made on them will stay and affect them in a multitude of ways. Distress and other difficulties could have an impact on the rest of their lives.

Having mental health and wellbeing support available gives them the opportunity to process their experiences. It promotes self-regulation, self-reflection and resilience – the resources we all need to draw upon to keep ourselves going and to thrive.

Once their physical safety needs have been taken care of, their mental wellbeing is what will support them to sustain a positive, safe and a fulfilling life.

Better mental health leads to better physical health, more positive social relationships, and a greater sense of purpose, better employment/education outcomes and general life satisfaction. It will not only allow a young Londoner to reach their full potential, it will have a positive ripple effect on their families, peers and communities.

Find out more about our work with young Londoners & their families

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