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Leo’s story: How therapy could help us end violence

I want to tell you about a child – aged just ten years old – whose life was being shaped by the violence around him.

Leo’s* dad was a gang leader. There were people in his life who were deeply connected to crime and violence. He looked up to them, wanted to be like them. And this meant that he struggled at school. He thought that the way to express yourself – when you’re sad, frustrated or finding things hard – was through anger.

Then something changed Leo’s life.

He was referred to a project called Guiding Young Minds, a Youth Endowment Fund-backed programme of youth work and trauma-focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). He was given a mentor – someone who was there to listen, to help, when he wasn’t able to talk to his family and friends.

When the project team asked Leo about what this meant for him, he said: “I’m able to open up to people about my feelings and learn to control my anger better. It’s also made me know the right path I want to choose to go down and that I can work hard and be successful doing things the proper way and make my family proud. [My mentor] made me believe in myself.” Leo’s mum agreed; since having his mentor, his attitude turned around.

Released last week, new Youth Endowment Fund research shows that – for children like Leo – trauma-focused therapies could offer vital support that protects them from involvement in violence. While only based on four studies, our evidence suggests that these kind of approaches (on average) reduced the risk of vulnerable children becoming involved in crime and violence by 45%. Previous research published in our Toolkit demonstrates much stronger evidence of the link between talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and violence reduction. CBT helps children and young people become more aware of the negative thoughts that are often linked to their experiences of trauma. They’re then supported to change or manage those thoughts, when a skilled therapist helps them to explore how their assumptions relate to reality, better understand other people’s behaviour and motivations, and use problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations. When it’s linked to violence prevention, it’s really effective at reducing crime overall (on average, by 27%) and changing behaviours associated with crime and violence.

Complicated problems like violence can’t be solved with a single silver bullet. But it’s clear that one way we can start to make a difference is by making sure that children get targeted, evidence-led support through therapy. We know that children who have committed crimes are much more likely to have been victims themselves. And they’re far more likely to have been through some truly traumatic experiences, including abuse and bereavement. By making sure that mental health support is available, we can make sure that children don’t turn to violence when they’re feeling lost. Because children like Leo aren’t bad. They just need – and deserve – our support.

*Name changed to protect confidentiality

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