The scale of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the general population is only now beginning to be understood. Here, Andy Bell blogs about how early action in addressing traumatic brain injury could have huge social and economic benefit.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a common and serious health issue. It affects millions of people and carries an economic and social cost of £15 billion a year nationally. People who have sustained a traumatic brain injury have a greater likelihood of mental ill health and of offending, as well as suffering from many other life difficulties.

Barrow Cadbury Trust and Centre for Mental Health recently organised a roundtable for experts from the West Midlands, hosted by the University of Birmingham, to discuss the implications of our recent research on TBI and the ways in which support might be improved in the West Midlands region.

Addressing TBI in an effective (and efficient) way requires collective action across public services. No agency or sector can deal with it alone. We need a comprehensive approach that includes prevention, early identification and effective support from early childhood and throughout life.

West Midlands Devolution

The West Midlands devolution deal presents a unique opportunity to take a ‘whole place’ approach to TBI. The Combined Authority has already prioritised mental health and youth justice as cross-sector issues it aims to address across the region. Developing an effective response to TBI would contribute to both and to the overall wellbeing of the population.

Preventing head injuries is challenging but action to reduce risk would include measures to tackle domestic violence (the cumulative impact of physical abuse has been noted as a significant problem for women in prison), to promote positive parenting and to tackle bullying in schools. These also have a major impact on emotional wellbeing and future life chances. Improved support for children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders can also reduce the heightened risk of TBI in these groups of young people. All of these actions should also reduce health inequalities by addressing the greater risks among people in the most deprived and marginalised communities in the West Midlands.

For those who do sustain head injuries, and particularly those who have experienced multiple traumas, identification is vital to ensure that effective support is offered and adjustments are made to reflect their vulnerability. Schools, hospitals, police stations and prisons can all ask simple questions to screen for head injuries. This can help them to ensure they offer support where it is needed, for example to manage a child’s behaviour in school and avoid excluding a young person whose behaviour results from a head injury where some additional support might be of benefit.

Traumatic brain injury and the Criminal Justice System

It is estimated that up to 60% of prisoners have sustained head injuries. It is therefore vital that the whole of the criminal justice system works with an awareness of TBI and an ability to respond effectively. Liaison and diversion teams, for example, can screen for TBI alongside other vulnerabilities. Prisons can offer all of their staff (including not just prison officers but education and other workers) training about TBI as part of becoming an enabling environment. Specialist linkworkers in prisons have also been found to provide effective support to individuals with TBI. And for people leaving prison, robust support is essential to help them to adjust to life outside and cope with the demands and difficulties they will face.

There are a number of initiatives already in place to build upon: HMP Drake Hall provides all staff with training in working with trauma and supports women prisoners who have experienced abuse and violence. The Geese Theatre Company provides ‘safe spaces’ for prisoners to explore their emotional wellbeing and what would help them to get back in control of their lives. And there are specialist services for offenders in the community, including for women, that offer peer support and help with health issues, that could provide more bespoke support for those with head injuries.

The significance of TBI is only beginning to be understood. But it is now clear that joint action that brings together local authorities, NHS organisations, schools, the criminal justice system and voluntary and community bodies (among others) will be essential to develop an effective response. From public health teams including TBI in local needs assessments and Health and Wellbeing Strategies to schools providing extra support to children who have sustained head injuries, we can bring about a bigger focus on prevention and early help. And by working across the justice system, we can enable some of the most vulnerable and prolific offenders to get their lives back on track.