‘Lightening the Blues — a personal PIE reflection’

18.03.2022: For this week’s PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I again have the pleasure of handing over to another colleague in the organisation — Adam Pemberton (Director of Strategy & Performance). He has written a personal reflection on the challenges of recovering from past traumatic experiences, an issue that faces many of our homeless young people in Centrepoint whose experiences prior to coming to our services have often been extremely difficult. Many of the homeless young people we support have not only experienced the trauma associated with their experience of homelessness, but also have a history of having experiences many adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s). These can include physical or sexual abuse, neglect, relationship breakdown, separation from family, bereavement or loss, mental health issues, domestic violence, discrimination due to race or sexuality, and the consequences of growing up within the statutory care system or having left other counties to seek asylum within the UK (Centrepoint, 2019).

In particular, this blog reflects upon how we can all carry traumatic experiences with us or ACE’s and why it is so important in a PIE (c.f. Keats et al, 2012) to allow space to recover from these in real time. Otherwise we can run the risk of carrying these like a ‘ruck sack’ on our back that weighs us down and continually affects us, perhaps in a way that we may not even consciously realise. Allowing space to process our trauma enables us to carry it differently — perhaps like a ‘wheelie suitcase’ in order that it does not consciously (or unconsciously) continue to impact on our daily lives. This personal reflection also highlights the key role of ‘relationships’ and ‘connection’ in this recovery from past trauma — as Keats et al (2012) note, within a PIE, ‘relationships are seen as a principal tool for change, and every interaction between staff and clients is an opportunity for development and learning’ (p.24).

This is why a psychologically informed or PIE approach to dealing with homelessness is so important. Homeless services are more than just the provision of ‘housing’ — they also need to address the reasons for the homelessness to allow an individual to ‘move on’ and fulfil their potential. This may be through the provision of supportive relationships (e.g. with our support and housing team / keyworkers) as well as through having access to specialist trauma treatment as needed (e.g. via our Health Team — https://centrepoint.org.uk/what-we-do/health/ or statutory partners).

Specifically, PIE approaches are an attempt to meet the fundamental needs of residents by providing psychological safety and security, and rebuilding damaged attachment relationships through the provision of a ‘professional home and family’ (Johnson & Haigh, 2010; 2012). Non-PIE homeless work has ‘automatically prioritised physical shelter, provided by a roof, over the psychological shelter and security that can only be formed over time, in the mind, through relationships’ (Seager, 2015). However, ‘without the right psychological conditions, the offer of a roof alone can never be enough and may even be damaging because it signals a failure to understand and honour the depth of emotional damage behind the homelessness’ (Seager, 2015). So with these thoughts in mind, I hand over now to Adam:

‘I am very proud to be the lead Director at Centrepoint for our efforts to become psychologically informed in all of the work we do to end youth homelessness by 2037. I am by no means an expert in this subject but I have been very fortunate at Centrepoint to work with Dr Helen Miles and her fantastic PIE team as well as to have previously championed ‘trauma-informed practice’ in my last role at Barnardo’s. As well as thinking about what this means for our work with vulnerable children and homeless young people, and how we look after each other as colleagues, I have spent time thinking about how it applies to my own life. This came into sudden focus last month when I found myself in Cambridge for a senior executive team (SET) away day.

Now I love a good away day but when the venue was confirmed, I felt a familiar nervousness about the prospect. And I knew why. Because I went to university in Cambridge in the early 90’s and, unlike many people who look back on their university years with affection, I remember it as some of the saddest and loneliest times of my life. So much so that, apart from one glorious term just before graduation, I could not get away soon enough. And after a disastrous and upsetting return visit soon after graduating, I have pretty much avoided going back for the three decades since.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my life to have always had the support and love of friends, family and a partner of 28 years so those earlier university experiences never really weighed that heavily on me. Nevertheless, at the same time, I knew they were there and that there always felt like some unfinished business. Last year, I went back to Cambridge for the first time in nearly 30 years and it felt good to put most of those memories behind me. However, the one thing I did not have time to do on that trip was go back to my college. So after last month’s SET away day finished, I decided it was time and I walked the long, straight road out of town in the drizzle to see what I would find — and feel.

As I saw the red brick buildings through the trees, for a moment I thought it was going to be a mistake. But as I wandered the corridors and the grounds, picking out the windows of rooms where I used to live and standing in the very spots where I had felt so unhappy and confused, I suddenly realised that I had, for far too long, held on to my past trauma and given it much more power than it ever deserved. I also reflected on how I had allowed it to completely squeeze out the many positive memories of those times. I realised finally that all that pain was long gone. As I walked back into the town to catch the train home, I felt physically lighter. It took me a while to identify it, but I think what I was feeling was ‘joy’.

Now you might be wondering why am I sharing this with you? Helen has noted above why a focus on recovery from past trauma is important in homeless services, though a PIE approach and why this is important for an organisation like Centrepoint. However, for me personally, I know that, even with so many resources, relationships and privilege at my disposal, it still took me nearly three decades to finally put my own experiences behind me.

Today, tomorrow and the day after, there are far too many children and young people experiencing infinitely worse trauma than anything that happened to me and who do not have anything like the same support or connections to heal from it. As a society, we can and must do much better for all of them. I also hope that by being more psychologically informed, we can prevent trauma for this and future generations. That is why I am so proud of the work we are doing at Centrepoint, and our PIE journey so far…’

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Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Centrepoint Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) Lead @orange_madbird

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Dr Helen Miles

Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Centrepoint Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) Lead @orange_madbird

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